As much as I love murder mystery novels, I'm not the biggest fan of the genre's movies. Why? They tend to be stuffy. Take for example the recent Murder on the Orient Express adaptation. While it was well acted and beautifully shot, it was also a bit snoozy.
I suppose that's why I loved Knives Out so much. It hewed closely to the tone and feeling of a traditional murder mystery while also being a blast to watch. So when the sequel, Glass Onion, was announced as a limited theatrical release, I bought my tickets months in advance.
Glass Onion was a blast to watch. But was it a traditional murder mystery? In my opinion, no. More than that, something about the film bugged me.
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
At risk of going full-nerd, it's worth clarifying what a "traditional murder mystery" is. We fans recognize a mystery as traditional when it involves:
- A thrown-together cast of characters
- A private detective or sleuth. (but not a cop)
- A murder, which can happen before or during the gathering
- A confined, often luxurious setting
- A non-obvious resolution, requiring the detective's insights of human nature
- A dramatic reveal of the killer at the end.
- The murderer is caught and justice is served.
Knives Out was a traditional mystery because it fit the expectations to a tee. Glass Onion, though? It only appeared to be one. On the surface, all the elements were in place. We had a charming cast of colorful characters, including an eccentric rich man, and they all went to a remote island by invitation. The premise for the gathering was a game and many traditional mysteries involve games. The puzzle boxes were a delightful introduction to the mystery, and during the opening each character's personality was well-shaped.
Benoit Blanc was as charming, clever, and quirky as always. When he solved the host's murder mystery puzzle in two seconds flat, I was DELIGHTED. What a fun twist on the tropes!
However, after I left the theater, I felt vaguely dissatisfied by what I'd seen. The movie had been a blast, no doubt about it, yet walking out of the theater was akin to the sensation of eating a big, delicious meal only to feel hungry again as you pushed back from the table. At the time I thought:
"That was fun, but I liked Knives Out better."
A few days later, after I'd had a chance to stew, I realized I why was bothered by the movie's ending.
Our detective did not bring the killer to justice. The story dead ended in a moment where it became clear justice was impossible. The powerful would remain powerful, and the killer's sycophants would continue to lie to further their own aims.
Then, our heroine burns the murderer's home to the ground and destroys a priceless cultural artifact.
😬 😬 😬
Absent true justice, our heroine settles for ruining the killer personally and financially, and only after his terrible "friends" see they have nothing left to gain do they volunteer to lie, in order to put him in prison for his crimes.
In summary, "Justice" in this movie occurs via:
- Acts of Violence
- Destruction of Shared Culture
- Immoral Liars Lying
Right there is why the ending troubled me! As I've mentioned before, most of us mystery readers crave justice being served. Fiction is often a kind of wish fulfillment. Romance readers want their happily ever after and mystery readers want a world where the scales are balanced. The bad guys go to jail. The good guys struggle but overcome.
Where is the morality tale at work in The Glass Onion? Does it imply that burning down your enemy's house and lying about evidence is the right thing to do?
No. I don't think it does.
In the end, I loved Glass Onion. But this movie wasn't so much a mystery as it was a focused piece of social commentary. We live in a time when wealthy people rarely face consequences. Collectively, we have a tendency to admire the rich and popular, to assume they're correct in what they do, even while discounting the evidence of our own eyes.
What the movie seems to ask is: When justice becomes impossible, what might happen next? Where are our systems failing us? Who is held to account, and who is allowed to get away with murder?
These questions are uncomfortable, just like the ending of the movie made me uncomfortable. Personally, I enjoy that. I appreciate it when stories challenge me and make me think. Yet I still feel Glass Onion ultimately wasn't a murder mystery. Even Benoit Blanc seemed to agree, declaring how "stupid" the conclusion was before stalking off to wait for his ride home at the pier.
I have a feeling Rian Johnson knew exactly what he was doing. And once in a while, it feels great to have your genre expectations shattered. Still, I hope Blanc solves his next mystery the right way.
Catch the dastardly criminal. Haul em to jail. Make me cheer!
In the context of a good mystery, on the page or on the screen, I'd call that a happily ever after. 😇