The “whodunit” style of mystery story has experienced a renaissance over the recent years with updated versions of the classic Agatha Christie stories like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile having reasonable success with audiences. More thriller-style mysteries like Gone Girl and Where the Crawdads Sing have been adapted from popular novels and experienced similar success. Even original screenplays like See How They Run and Amsterdam have joined this party. Mystery is back, and perhaps the most-celebrated examples comes from director Rian Johnson and his two Knives Out films featuring Kentucky-Fried detective Benoit Blanc. With the second film available on Netflix as of December 23rd, this feels like the perfect time to look back at these two films and see what elements have resonated so well with audiences.
The Elements of the Whodunnit
I am going to do something a little weird here. I am going to review both of these films at the same time, looking first at the original and then at the sequel. I am very well aware that these films were not created to be part of a singular narrative. However, I think that there are interesting similarities that we can explore. There will be spoilers throughout.
After all, at the very basic level, these films both fall into the whodunnit subgenre. There’s an ensemble cast of characters surrounding a central mystery – almost always a murder of one of the characters. Then, the detective is introduced and they work to solve it all in a flourish at the end. The most inventive of these types of films play with this structure in interesting ways, but so long as you have these three elements, you’ve got a whodunnit. The Knives Out films certainly qualify.
Admittedly, this is a surface-level observation, and not particularly insightful. However, more complex elements of these films share parallels as well, and it is those that I wish to point out and discuss. These include certain themes, the structures of the films, the tone, and the characterization (especially regarding the common character: Benoit Blanc).
Let’s start with the characters, and Rian Johnson’s general approach to using characterization as a whole.
The natural place to start is the only character that appears in both films, and likely the major reason for returning to this world. There’s only one real bar to clear for all would-be mystery series, whether film, television, or novel: if you want to make a sequel, the audience has to love the detective. Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Scooby Doo, whatever.
Benoit Blanc qualifies.
In Knives Out, we are introduced to Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc while the character sits in the background of the initial interrogation of our ensemble. He plinks out a single note at odd intervals as his only commentary, which we eventually learn is a display of his intelligence as he catches the suspects in various mistruths, omissions, or outright lies. This minor subterfuge is a brilliant moment of characterization. It immediately sets Blanc up as the smartest person in every room and makes clear that his interests do not lay in demonstrating just how much he knows. It is sufficient that he is secure in his conclusions; he can wait until the proper moment to show off. But this doesn’t mean he’s omniscient – he still has to struggle to learn what is actually going on. This is pitch-perfect characterization work – lean, lithe, and instantly understood by the audience.
There are some points in the film when it looks like Blanc is a bit of a fool, but most of these are misdirection and are therefore intertwined with the reveal of certain plot elements. This is a difficult balance to maintain; creating an intelligent character who is up to the challenge of solving the mystery without the process becoming trivial and uninteresting. In fact, in Glass Onion, one of the funnier twists play with this space, displaying Blanc’s complete mastery of detective work while still allowing room for him to not be fully in control.
Glass Onion doesn’t particularly grow the character of Benoit Blanc, though there is a brief look into his personal life that we don’t get in the first film. Instead, the sequel doubles-down on much of what we love about the character, and that’s just about where you want to be with your serial detective.
While everything revolves around the detective in these stories, a great ensemble elevates these films to a higher strata. And these two films are replete with astonishing performances from the ensemble. There are essentially two camps: the collection of smarmy assholes who serve as the suspects, and the trusted insider who works with Blanc to solve the murder. These ensembles are perfectly on-point, ably acted by an incredible cast of character actors. Toni Colette and Chris Evans are particularly notable in the first film, though you could pretty much throw a dart at the casting sheet and hit an impressive performance. The same is true for the sequel, with my favorite performances coming from Kate Hudson and Edward Norton.
And then, there’s Blanc’s allies. In Knives Out, it’s Ana de Armas, in Glass Onion, it’s Janelle Monae. Both of these performances are outstanding, and instill their respective films with the gravitas and pathos that help elevate them beyond the simple whodunnit into the realm of something special. For comparison, consider what happens when a film like these is missing this crucial human element, like with the similar Death on the Nile. You get a lifeless crashing of billiards balls until there’s only a few bland options left for the “big reveal”. It can still be fun on the surface, but it doesn’t feel like anything really matters. Monae and de Armas protect us from such a fate; they are revelations, each of them.
Plotting (and Plotting and Plotting and Plotting)
The kinds of plots constructed in service of the mystery have a lot of heavy lifting to do, more so than the average story. Obviously, plot is crucial to any story, but the relative importance of a strong plot is much higher for the mystery than it is for, say, the character study. This is because the major focus of the mystery is inherently tied to the unfolding of sequential events culminating in the reveal of some ultimate solution that casts the entirety of those previous events in a new light, thereby resolving the mystery. These kinds of things can’t be stumbled into and it can be easy to fall into triteness. As a result, when a story pulls this off, the audience feels a deep sense of satisfaction.
Knives Out and The Glass Onion are paragons of plot.
It is not valuable for me to regurgitate these plots point by point, but there are some common aspects of these plots that are especially effective. Namely, these are: the setup, the reframe, and the climax. For both films, a lot of time is spent setting the situation up with a certain set of rules, relationships, and conflicts. That’s the setup. But then, at some crucial point, there is a big reveal that re-casts the initial assumptions and changes how we evaluate what these rules, relationships, and conflicts actually meant. Armed with this new information, we’re now set to approach the climactic moment where the whole mystery is finally resolved.
This is a reduction of these plots to the bare essentials, to be sure, but the genius of these two films lay in the execution (as it so often does). To take a single example from each film, observe how the audience is initially convinced that the key mystery is one very specific thing, only to learn much later that this initial assumption was 180 degrees wrong. In Knives Out, we first think that the crux of the story revolves around the obvious murder of Harlan Thrombey, only to learn that what’s actually happening is the cover-up of Marta’s “mistake” – and that isn’t even the end of the chain. Glass Onion works similarly, where we are initially attracted to the idea of a make-believe murder mystery thrown by the billionaire Miles Bron for his old chums, coupled with the mysterious attendance of Andi Brand (Monae), who has become estranged from the friend group. Once the fireworks start, we learn that there is actually a lot more going on. In fact, Andi isn’t even at the party; she’s been murdered, and it’s her twin Helen who has actually shown up, in league with Benoit Blanc to figure out who is behind it all.
These are broad examples, but consider how many times situations like these play out across both of these films. How often do we think an event means one thing, only to revise our assumptions? Consider a few from Knives Out: the grandmother asking Marta, “Ransom, are you back already?”, Fran’s accusation that, “You/Hugh did this”, even down to the final “stabbing” by Ransom in the climactic sequence. Glass Onion follows a similar playbook.
The overall effect of this technique is that it allows Rian Johnson to solve the Big Problem that exists in any plot dependent on a “twist”. Namely, if the conclusion is too far out of left field, it feels contrived but if it is too simple it feels obvious. “Contrived” and “obvious” aren’t how you want your mystery story to be described. So, Johnson hides the keys to the “big reveal” at the end in a number of distinct smaller reveals, thereby conveying to the audience the sense that all of the clues were right there for them to see all along, if only they’d thought about what they were seeing a bit differently. It’s a brilliant trick, both from a narrative and a structural perspective.
There is a risk, though: do this too often and you may alienate your audience, who are growing tired of all the “gotcha” moments. It’s akin to the moral from The Boy Who Cried Wolf – go back to these tricks too often, and people become desensitized to the whole illusion. So far, in my estimation, Johnson has walked this tightrope well. But I can understand if this constant subversion of expectations has grown tired for other viewers (especially fans of a certain space fantasy series who have ire for Johnson’s entry into their beloved series).
Themes and the Satisfaction of a Moral Conclusion
If these films were content to simply tell a satisfying mystery story with intriguing characters, they’d be enjoyed on the level of a strong episode of a television police procedural. But these films are celebrated, and I believe it is because while they are expert displays of characterization, structure, and plot, underneath all of it is a meaningful thematic message.
For Knives Out, there are discussions on immigration, ambition, the double-edged nature of gratitude, familial relationships, genuine friendship, and the redemptive power of competence or mastery. These are serious ideas, and some of the greatest moments of the film emerge from satisfying payoffs related to them. In particular, the crucial reveal that because Marta had such mastery over her profession, Harlan was never really in danger. She was, “A good nurse”, and this proves her ultimate salvation as she chooses to stay and save Fran.
Glass Onion deals in similarly weighty topics: the effects of fame and fortune, betrayal, sycophantic behavior, wanting to leave one’s mark on the world, and the ultimate evil of lying, irrational behavior, and attempting to evade reality. The central evil of this film revolves around intellectual theft and the willingness of the collective to support that theft through dishonesty, up to and including committing murders to cover up the initial sin.
Knives Out and Glass Onion boast superlative technique, and people respond to such high quality. But it’s these deeper thematic elements and how they are woven into the story that made audiences adore these films.
It Was the Butler!
The first film in this series was a great surprise, and Netflix jumped on the opportunity to produce additional stories in this universe, the first of which was Glass Onion. There’s a third film in the planning, and if it follows in the footsteps of the first two by constructing an intricate, satisfying plot replete with entertaining performances from a spectacular ensemble cast led by Daniel Craig while simultaneously providing discourse on universal themes, then it will do fine.
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