In interviews about Knives Out (2019) and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022), writer/director Rian Johnson name-checks Agatha Christie, whose classic whodunits have spawned a century of high-profile adaptations. Since most are period pieces—see Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express from 2017 and Death on the Nile from this past year—there was room to stake out fresh terrain.
Rian Johnson told Todd Gilchrist, “Christie wrote of her time, writing to her society. She wasn’t an intensely political writer, but she was always engaging with the present moment. The notion of setting a whodunit unabashedly in the here and now, in America in this moment, seemed exciting and subversive and got back to the origin of what this stuff used to be.”
A good part of “in the here and now” means politics in the age of social media. Johnson is clearly very Internet-savvy, with a highly visible Twitter presence, and has attempted to infuse the old-fashioned murder mystery with a contemporary leftist edge.
Agatha Christie’s most famous titles are probably the most popular novels ever written. The Christie press office claims she has sold 2 billion books, a number competitive with William Shakespeare and the Bible. Her work is both terribly serious (nothing is more tragic than murder) and casually humorous. The basic “whodunit” structure rolls along, with a puzzle that clicks satisfyingly into place in the final pages. Her genius was plot, while her prose is essentially at YA level; many read their first Christie at the age of 11 or 12.
There’s no doubt that Rian Johnson is not just an Agatha Christie fan but a big crime fiction fan in general. His wonderful low-budget debut, Brick (2005), competes with the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990) as the best (uncredited) modern Dashiell Hammett adaptation on film. However, while Miller’s Crossing is set in the era of Hammett’s bootleggers and small-town political machines, Brick is not a period piece. Even for his debut, Johnson was bringing it forward as well as going back.
Over the course of 66 novels and 14 short-story collections, the Queen of Crime used just about every variation of motive available to her, including different aspects of class conflict. Still, it is easy to declare that without rich people, there are no Agatha Christie stories, especially stories using the classic Christie scenarios reimagined by Rian Johnson: “heirs gather around a will” (Knives Out) or “motley bunch stranded with a murderer” (Glass Onion).
Indeed, Johnson’s comment above, “She wasn’t an intensely political writer,” rather understates Dame Agatha’s commitment to an established order where the wealthy stay wealthy—and others stay in their place. Nine times out of 10, the killer in a conventional British cosy is an upstart lacking the breeding of the other suspects. When “the butler did it!,” the perpetrator is guilty of not one but two crimes: murder and social climbing. Although she occasionally played against the “the butler did it” trope, those deviations were driven by Christie’s dedication to discovering fresh murder mystery solutions—not by any kind of revolutionary perspective. If the Tory party were assembling culture warriors to protect the status quo, Christie would be a solid choice.
Rian Johnson’s superb upending of class politics in Knives Out is far more drastic than anything in Christie. Marta Cabrera is the nurse of a rich patriarch: the patriarch leaves her everything: wild shenanigans ensue. In the flawless final scene, Cabera looks over at the departing family—a family that despised her upstart immigrant status—from the porch of her newly acquired mansion, drinking from a mug emblazoned, “MY HOUSE, MY RULES, MY COFFEE.”
Christie would never have allowed the immigrant to take possession of the money and the land. Cabera might—just—have been allowed to marry into the family. But inhabiting the mansion on her own? No way.
This disruption of social order is blended seamlessly into the story. Marta gets hers as a natural consequence of the ingenious murder puzzle. Christie may not have been able to write it, but she would appreciate that the game was played well according to the rules.
Unfortunately, the kind of light-footed subtlety that characterized Knives Out is abandoned in Glass Onion. Every plot beat drops as if decided by a focus group in advance. Naturally, those beats are lefty—but they are lefty only on the surface. The perfect metaphor is only a click away: Netflix created a Zillow listing for the titular lair, priced at $450 million dollars—the phenomenal sum paid by Netflix for rights to the franchise in one of the most expensive bidding wars Hollywood has ever seen.
The Zillow listing may be ironic, but it clearly isn’t meant to engender disgust; it is meant to engender interest, if not envy. The whole movie is like that. A former James Bond sitting topless in a bathtub while playing the Among Us video game with Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? His boyfriend Hugh Grant at the door? The Porsche 918 Spyder? Janelle Monáe’s wardrobe? Perhaps the references to “Jerold Leto hard kombucha” and “Jeremy Renner hot sauce” are friendly attempts to lampoon those actors—but, really, how far are those insider touches from the luxury yacht Aquarius, which exists in real life and can be rented for $228,000 a week?
All of that escapist excess might be perfectly OK, though, if the murder plot delivered straight entertainment. However, Agatha Christie would be baffled; in Glass Onion, the rules of the game don’t matter.
To be fair, nothing ever makes that much sense in any murder mystery puzzle. Christie and her peers loved Rube Goldberg plot mechanisms, with dozens of twists and turns straining credulity almost as much as the very idea of a famous gentleman detective. (Ed McBain: “The last time a private eye solved a murder was never.”)
Still, in Knives Out, the twists and turns make sense in terms of character. There is a good enough reason for each event in the Rube Goldberg sequence. More importantly, the basic engine of the plot—where will the money go when a rich man dies?—is solid.
Every step in the mechanism of Glass Onion is designed to make an obvious point about abuse of power and self-involved excess. Yet, after all has been revealed, we realize that there was absolutely no reason for the whole contraption to get started in the first place.
Moreover, any critique of self-involved excess is blunted by the larger celebration of wealthy insider status. Everything is aspirational—or a form of fan fiction for rich people. Even the motley crew of energetic suspects are far more appealing than the genuine ne’er-do wells who populate Knives Out. The “worst” person staying at the Glass Onion party gets killed, but even that “worst” person seemed to have a cool mom and smart girlfriend. At the end, the survivors (except the murderer) begin their redemption arcs—a far cry from Marta Cabrera coolly watching her former tormentors slink away as she drinks from her “MY HOUSE” mug.
The mixture of scorn and self-congratulation in Glass Onion is in keeping with a certain modern fantasy of “having it all”—a late-stage capitalism marriage of superficially progressive politics to an unexamined luxury lifestyle. Still, it apparently plays well to the gallery. The reviews of Glass Onion have been overwhelmingly positive—perhaps because the film channels the anti–Sam Bankman-Fried and anti–Elon Musk sentiment that has built for months.
“Smart genre entertainment that privileges politics over story” is not an absolutely impossible model, and—having gotten this lavish affair out of his system—perhaps Rian Johnson can find a way to streamline and energize those focus group beats for the next installment. It is easy to love Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc—absurd accent and all. Can Johnson, Craig, and the rest produce something with a sharper edge? As Hercule Poirot says in Christie’s Funerals are Fatal: “In the long run, either through a lie, or through truth, people were bound to give themselves away.”