What Made “Glass Onion” and “Knives Out” So Popular?
In late December 2022, like millions of other people aggravated by the holidays, I turned to the latest Daniel Craig movie, “Glass Onion,” for a bit of distraction. Just in case you’re one of the few who’s managed to dodge Netflix’s massive promotional campaign for the film, it focuses on the continuing adventures of Benoit Blanc (Craig), a freelance detective with a genteel Southern accent and impeccable taste in suits, as he attempts to solve yet another elaborate murder-mystery.
“Glass Onion” is also the sequel to “Knives Out,” which introduced Blanc as he puzzles out the apparent murder of a world-famous mystery writer (played with patrician sangfroid by the late Christopher Plummer). Both movies borrow the tropes and structure of a classic locked-room mystery, with “Knives Out” playing as an homage to Agatha Christie, while “Glass Onion” owes quite a bit to the insanely intricate mysteries of John Dickson Carr.
However, “Knives Out” is relatively restrained in comparison to “Glass Onion,” which at many moments plays less like a mystery and more like a comedy: characters quip relentlessly, visual gags abound, and the final reveals seem designed to either make you laugh or roll your eyes in exasperation.
The two movies (soon to be followed by a third) have proven enormously popular. Head to the social-media platform of your choice and you’ll see people of all ages posting memes in tribute to Blanc’s ingenuity, or at least his colorful fashion sense. Netflix released “Glass Onion” for a mere week in a limited number of theaters and still managed to rack up $15 million in box office receipts—a “regular” theatrical launch would have likely earned hundreds of millions over the course of a few months.
I’ve puzzled over that success. Is it the mystery? The comedy? The sheer magnetism of Craig and the films’ respective casts (all of whom seem to be having a very good time)? Kenneth Branagh’s recent Hercule Poirot remakes have also performed well at the box office, so maybe there’s a lot of appetite out there for locked-room whodunits. Or maybe Rian Johnson, the writer/director of the Blanc films, fulfilled the viewing public’s need for something fun and lighthearted (despite the murders) after two-plus miserable years of pandemic and garbage-fire politics.
When I think about it, I’m reminded of something the mystery writer Jordan Harper wrote in his most recent newsletter. Exploring what makes some kinds of fiction fresh and alive, he wrote about “pressing” against the membrane of what’s possible: “Maybe it’s in the language, or experimenting with a different type of character. Maybe it’s in the mode of composition, or in the themes, or the subject matter. Maybe it’s just ambitious in a way you’ve never been before. Remember, you don’t have to blast off to the outer realm of the impossible—you just have to press against the borders.”
In their own way, I think “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion” accomplish this. The movies play as loving homages to a very old type of mystery, but they’re also infused with a lot of “newer” things: wry skewerings of wealth and contemporary politics, a heroic gay protagonist who’s happily married (certainly a relative rarity in mainstream filmmaking), and a willingness to twist timelines in funky ways. It’s the opposite of most mystery and noir homages, which tend to be stolid snooze-fests.
Not everyone loved “Glass Onion.” Friends of mine found it incredibly irritating; one even turned it off midway through, after what they felt was an obnoxious flip. But it’s helping keep a storied type of mystery alive, and at least it’s trying for some new twists on old things—which is more than you can say about a lot of contemporary books and cinema.
Nick Kolakowski is the author of „Maxine Unleashes Doomsday“ and „Boise Longpig Hunting Club“ as well as the Love & Bullets trilogy of novellas. His noir fiction has appeared in Tough, ThugLit, Mystery Tribune, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies. Brandnew: his „Payback is Forever“ (Shotgun Honey 2022), inspired clearly by the novels of Richard Stark. Our review here (in German). – Just out: Hell of a Mess. A Love & Bullets Hookup.
Nick Kolakowski, geboren 1980, aufgewachsen in Washington. D.C., hat Geschichte in Chicago studiert. Er schreibt Romane, Kurzgeschichten, Lyrik und Essays, viele davon über Crime Fiction und verwandte Themen. Seine Texte erscheinen u. a. in der Washington Post, in Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, Rust & Months. Kolakowski lebt in New York City. Eine Besprechung des von Parker inspirierten „Payback is Forever“ in unseren Bloody Chops.
Bei Suhrkamp auf Deutsch: Love & Bullets.
His essays with us.
His column „Gunsmoke“ with us:
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