Eight numbered pieces of paper are placed into a box. The box is closed, the papers are shuffled, and you’re asked to pick a number. The showman reaches into the box and pulls out a paper (what if it’s the number one? Too obvious, I’m sure it’s five!), and…
You were right!
Or you were wrong. Best case, you’re proud to have guessed correctly or you’re glad to have been surprised, but either way, the game is over. Play a thousand rounds and you’re bound to be right a statistically predictable number of times, but where’s the thrill? There’s no magic to be dazzled by, no trickery to uncover. It’s as simple—and as boring—as probability.
Agatha Christie was far too remarkable a talent to have her contributions whittled down to such games of chance. Her novels perfected, if not invented, the modern whodunnit formula, and yet with every half-assed primetime “mystery,” and with every pull-quote blasphemously name-dropping her on the cover of some derivative airport thriller, her legacy has been further diluted to the point where it can be (criminally) used as shorthand for “There was a murder and one of these people did it.”
Christie did, indeed, put a bunch of numbers in a bunch of boxes. And true, your odds of guessing her culprits were no different than with your stock thriller. But she also understood the value of a show; she knew that if someone were to be tricked, they wanted to be impressively tricked. So if her numbers went into a box like all the others, that was only the prelude to the real magic.
A box needn’t be just a box. A box can be a puzzle, a trapdoor, a gambit to be switched, refracted, illusioned. Numbers can be erased and rewritten, or else removed via secret compartment, if not pre-selected by a paid-off showman, who might actually be the murdered original showman’s identical twin, and so on. When you reach the end of a Hercule Poirot mystery, it doesn’t matter whether you guessed the killer or not—what matters is that you certainly didn’t guess how or why or when they did it, because to do so would require a narrative ingenuity that few people in history have possessed. The list, as long as I’m keeping track, pretty much begins and ends with Christie.
But now, we can add Rian Johnson. The writer-director is a self-proclaimed Christie acolyte, though you should hardly need him to proclaim it. Even before his first homage/reinvention/evolution of her style, Knives Out, The Brothers Bloom nodded to his love of intricate, sleight-of-hand storytelling. He’s only further embraced those tendencies in his Benoit Blanc whodunnits, the second of which, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, takes the classic structures of a Christie caper and levels them up, building an impossibly polyhedral monument to all that a mystery can be. By using some of Christie’s greatest tricks as bedrock and pushing himself with ever more daring structural challenges, Johnson has accomplished a feat worthy of a Pulitzer—or at least a Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Glass Onion begins, as do many Christie yarns, with an invitation. Stuck at home during the pandemic, Johnson’s colorful cast of new-money elites each receive a puzzle box containing an invite from Miles Bron (Edward Norton), a tech giant with a name just anagrammatic enough with a certain recent Twitter-acquirer’s that we can figure the rest out for ourselves.
All the invitees—Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), the tote-bag-progressive Governor of Connecticut; Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), a morally concerned scientist at Miles’s company, Alpha; Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), a ditzy fashion designer and model; and Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), a men’s rights YouTuber—are old friends of Miles’s, and this latest invitation is one of many that have led to exotic, exorbitant reunions.
This time’s to be no different. Anticipating their cabin fever, Miles has invited them to his private Grecian island for some isolated, .00001-percenter fun. The gang is mostly excited, save for the inclusion of two unexpected guests: Daniel Craig’s inimitable Southern sleuth, Benoit Blanc, and Janelle Monáe’s Cassandra “Andi” Brand, the gang’s former friend and Miles’s former business partner—up until she was forced out for refusing to back Miles’s unsafe alternative energy source. As we learn, each of the other friends sided with Miles in Andi’s ensuing suit, saving their skin at the cost of perjuring themselves about who had the original idea for Alpha—Andi did, but Miles took credit. One last wrinkle: Miles informs Blanc that the detective wasn’t sent an invitation, meaning one of the other future suspects re-gifted theirs to ensure he attended.
So that’s the gambit: a bunch of old friends, some at odds, in a Mediterranean megamansion, with a famous detective who’s been mysteriously invited. Add a dash of meta-mystery (Miles’s plans involve the gang “solving” his murder over a dinner game) and you have all the ingredients for a classic whodunnit. The expected developments come to pass—in addition to Andi’s obvious grudge, each of the others has ample motive to wish Miles harm, mostly from their various financial or legal dependencies on his calculated generosities—and tensions build ahead of his “murder.”
Even though we haven’t witnessed a crime yet, we’re already missing clues hidden in plain sight. Filmed whodunnits lack their literary cousins’ ability to hide plot keys amidst seemingly insignificant descriptions, leaving only visuals and dialogue to work with. Tip your hand too much visually and it’s obvious, but how is one supposed to disguise a clue in dialogue? Well, you borrow a magician’s trick and create a diversion: humor! Johnson uses jokes like crossword clues, scattering them innocuously throughout the film until the moment when Blanc reveals the line connecting them, threading through their comedic camouflage and pointing directly at the killer.
But that’s all ahead of us. At this point, we’re waiting for the inevitable dinner party, the obvious Miles-is-actually-murdered-for-real-during-the-game twist, and the subsequent locked-room investigation. By the hour mark, Johnson’s laid the groundwork for a traditional Agatha adventure, and a good one at that. But where a less gifted author might put the finishing touches on a roof, Johnson has loftier ambitions; the foundation he’s built out of solid Christie lumber is only a launchpad for his grander plot superstructures, the many arcs of which will spring up from this base like the giant glass onion that Miles has built atop his compound. Johnson’s shown us the numbers and placed them in his box. Now he gets out a hammer.
The infraction point, as Miles would call it, occurs at dinner. Just as he’s establishing the rules of his game and we’re preparing for his pretend-but-actual murder, in comes Johnson’s hammer: Blanc excitedly (and accurately, judging from Miles’s freefalling expression) identifies the murderer, the weapon, and the motive, which is surprising considering we didn’t even know the game had begun.
This is another Christie crib, the detective’s answer to a question you didn’t realize had been asked. It’s common in Poirot’s escapades for him to make a shocking statement about someone (Have pity on her, her twin brother’s just died) based on details that hadn’t even registered as clues (She was tenderly rubbing her half-Gemini-sign necklace, her makeup was freshly reapplied, and she was carrying a man’s trunk). Christie even wrote a short story collection, Poirot Investigates, comprised entirely of such micro-mysteries, solved before they’ve begun.
Blanc solving one here (Birdie, with the crossbow, to steal Miles’s diamond) based on similarly invisible clues (her seating assignment, the crossbow’s position, a diamond she wore on a magazine cover Miles displayed earlier) is a nice nod on its own, but it lands more like a head-bang when we realize that the premature conclusion of the game means Miles’s actual murder hasn’t come to pass, and our understanding of the gambit at hand is evaporating by the second. Now we’re in unzoned territory.
A lot happens in the next few minutes:
Blanc tells Miles that he had to solve his game because inviting a roomful of people with motive to kill him to play out his fake murder is like putting a gun on the table and turning the lights off. Duke’s phone dings incessantly with Google Alerts. Miles cajoles Birdie into dancing. Duke drops his drink, chokes, and dies.
If side-stepping Miles’s foreshadowed murder was Johnson’s first subversion of the classic Christie blueprint, the rest of the film is a non-stop series of jukes, beginning with Duke’s unexpected death. Johnson is perfectly in tune with both the whodunnit model and our popular understanding of it, and he plays our expectations like the vintage Paul McCartney guitar that Miles strums on the beach, building melodies we recognize before tossing the instrument to the side.
With Duke’s death, we’re immediately off-balance. Moments later, we learn that the glass Duke was drinking from was Miles’s. Just as soon as we were thrown off the expected tracks, we’re plopped right back on them, though more wobbly and less certain than before. Accusations fly around, Duke’s gun goes missing, everyone seems both endangered and dangerous—then the lights go out.
As the players scramble in the dark, we get the idea that Blanc and Andi are in cahoots—though we don’t get long to ponder it, as an unseen assassin promptly shoots Andi. As Blanc reels, the rest of the suspects step into the light, a silent line-up for a crime just like the one Blanc described to Miles: a gun on the table, the lights turned off, and a murder anyone could’ve committed.
Once again, Johnson has upended the mystery we thought we were watching. Right when we were sure we knew which numbers were in the box, the box has been shuffled and reshuffled and smashed to pieces. So, what now? Now, Johnson does what he does best: he picks up the broken pieces of the box, and builds something we never could’ve imagined.
After just two Blanc whodunnits, Johnson’s larger project is already coming into focus. Evoking the mother of mystery as much as he’s subverting her, he’s taken the Poirotian approach to investigating—identifying a crime’s shape in order to solve it—and flipped it.
You can see Johnson treating these films like literary brain-teasers, choosing a shape for each one and building complex Christiean structures within those shapes, just for kicks. In Knives Out, that shape was a donut…with another donut inside of it. You can read that imagery as a throwaway line, or you can remember how often Johnson’s throwaway lines camouflage clues, and read this donut-ception as a skeleton key unlocking the whole movie.
For most of Knives Out, we’re convinced that the mystery has been solved. We learn early on who (unintentionally) dunnit, and our rooting interest is in watching them try to get away with it. This is already an inversion of the typical Christie gameplan, and if the movie were just that—a mystery solved, a donut’s hole filled by a donut hole—it would be innovative enough. But as Blanc suspects, that donut hole is not a donut hole, but a whole other donut with its own missing hole! While we worried over the accidental murderer, we were missing an entire second mystery playing out within the “solved” one. As the film retraces its tracks, this time giving us a wide enough perspective to witness the real villain’s machinations, we realize the true extent of Johnson’s cleverness. How better to hide clues in plain sight than by making us believe there aren’t any to be found?
We aren’t clued into Knives Out’s organizing geometry until its third act, but Glass Onion doesn’t make us wait any longer than the title card. With this second film, Johnson doubles down on the shape construct, naming the movie accordingly and even giving us his thesis statement early on, when Blanc explains that a glass onion looks complex with its many layers but is transparently simple at its core.
We have an idea of the core Blanc could be referencing; all knives point to Miles. But Duke and Andi’s deaths complicate that core, and before we get back to it, we have a few more layers to add on.
Andi’s death is where most mysteries would hinge, so it’s a natural place for Johnson to take a page out of his Knives Out playbook and uncover a secondary mystery intersecting the one we’ve been puzzling over. After Andi’s murder, we flash back to the beginning of this affair, where we learn who re-gifted their invitation to Blanc: Andi!
…’s twin sister, Helen! It turns out that the real Andi was found dead at her home a few days prior, in an apparent suicide. When Helen went to investigate, she found Miles’s invitation, as well as an email Andi had sent to all the other island-goers, threatening to reveal proof that she was the true founder of Alpha. Convinced Andi was murdered, Helen enlisted Blanc to attend Miles’s party in her sister’s stead. Blanc accepted, on the condition that Helen accompany him, in disguise as the sister the world didn’t yet know was dead.
Thus, as in Knives Out, we dive back into the proceedings we’ve just watched. Johnson can’t help himself, so of course the key to this section was under our noses from the beginning. An early cameo from cellist Yo-Yo Ma lays its structure bare with a musical metaphor:
“A fugue is a beautiful musical puzzle, based on just one tune. And when you layer this tune on top of itself, it starts to change, and turns into a beautiful new structure.”
We get a rerun of the film’s first half, but layered on top of itself. With Helen-as-Andi as our countermelody, we weave around the other characters’ threads, unearthing new evidence and recontextualizing old clues. In this new harmonic light, everyone’s motives to kill Miles make even more sense as motives to kill Andi; why would they off their golden goose instead of the fox coming to cut off their egg supply? Helen’s just finished unsuccessfully searching each of their rooms for Andi’s missing proof when she’s killed.
Or she would’ve been, if her late sister’s notebook weren’t conveniently stashed in her jacket pocket, absorbing the bullet as a last act of sisterly protection. Finally allowed to see the full scene play out, we learn that Blanc witnessed this miracle and quickly had Helen play dead for the others so she could discreetly search the final room: Miles’s titular atrium.
While she does this, it’s Blanc’s turn for his Big Denouement, gathering all the suspects and peeling back the layers on the film’s central mystery/ies—and the film’s corresponding shape.
It all starts with a simple idea, the obvious core: Miles Bron is a superficial, power-grabbing buffoon. We can glean that from his eye-roll-inducing desire to “be responsible for something that gets talked about in the same breath as the Mona Lisa,” to say nothing of his loaning the actual Mona Lisa from the Louvre. And we can sense it the first time we meet him, when he tosses McCartney’s guitar aside like a toy. The Mona Lisa and the guitar, like the many people under his thumb, are only useful to him in their proximity to power, celebrity, status. It matters that he owns them, not how he treats them. And it matters that people think him intelligent, not that he actually be intelligent.
It’s here that Johnson’s crossword clues begin to line up, starting with a smattering of non-words. When the guests first arrive, Miles suggests that they “inbreathiate” the moment. Inbreathiate? Not a word. “Infraction” point? A word, but the wrong one. Like the business he appropriated from Andi or the cultural artifacts he’s collected around him in a constellation of conceit and bought status, these made-up words and malapropisms are desperate grasps at the appearance of intellect by a man who can’t even make up his own party game. Miles built himself a metaphorical onion to go with his literal one, burying his ignorance in the trappings of culture, and yet there was always a sightline to his central idiocy, if only someone not in his debt would shine a light on it.
When someone does, the cocoon around the movie’s layered crimes becomes translucent. All of Blanc’s and Helen’s discoveries find their final slots in the puzzle, giving us simple answers to seemingly complex questions:
Who killed Andi, when everyone could gain from her death? How about the only person she was directly threatening: Miles. But wasn’t Duke’s death a clear attempt to poison Miles’s cup? Even clearer: Duke’s Google Alerts told him of Andi’s death and offered him blackmail leverage over Miles, so Miles poisoned his own cup and passed it to Duke while Birdie danced.
Then, there’s Helen’s attempted assassination, but Blanc’s way ahead of it; after all, he was the one who gave Miles the idea of a gun going off in a dark room full of suspects, and Miles wasn’t smart enough to think of his own plan, nor to think that Blanc would be smart enough to call him on it.
So that’s Miles being good for Andi’s murder, Duke’s murder, and Helen’s would-be murder. Helen gets to place the cherry on top of that third reveal, triumphantly descending from Miles’s room with Andi’s damning proof: the cocktail napkin with the original plans for Alpha, proving her foundership and Miles’s fraud.
Finally, we see the full picture: an idiot, having ridden coattails and stepped on necks to the top of his empire, would obviously go to any lengths to keep it. He might have obfuscated his philistinism with all the strata money could buy, and he might’ve been abetted by Johnson’s screenplay, which props up his plans (or lack thereof) with a weaponized knowledge of our Christie-trained suspicions and a Russian nesting doll of mystery scaffolding. But in this critical moment, Helen and her cocktail napkin have a sniper’s red dot sight pinned squarely on Miles’s forehead; his elaborately constructed glass onion sliced to its core by Occam’s razor.
It’s the platonic ideal of a whodunnit’s conclusion, the folding together of so many clues, themes, and jokes into one perfectly satisfying vanishing point. The film’s title is the film’s structure is the film’s theme is the film’s solution, a three-dimensional crossword we’ve watched Johnson build and solve over the past two hours.
But Netflix didn’t pay $200 million for a talky ending. Miles undercuts this satisfying conclusion by simply burning the napkin. Without lawful recourse, Blanc finds a moral loophole that echoes Poirot’s decision to let the righteous killer(s) walk in Murder on the Orient Express, nudging Helen to take things into her own hands. She does, offering a physical riff on Miles’s earlier speech about how true “disruption” means breaking things. Helen cathartically smashes the crystal statuettes scattered around Miles’s house, to dwindling cheers from the others—they’re all for dismantling the system until it encroaches on their own comfort. Not Helen, who punctuates her tantrum by sparking the unsafe energy source powering Miles’s island, literalizing her (and Johnson’s) onion-puncturing with an explosion that shatters the movie’s centerpiece structure.
Miraculously, no one is killed in the blast besides Mona Lisa herself, but the fact that Miles’s energy source blew up his compound and destroyed a priceless painting is enough of a cinder block to sink his dream of capitalizing on that energy source to the ocean floor.
In one relentlessly entertaining package, Johnson has mounted a towering, glistening polyhedron atop the base that Christie built over a half-century of whodunnits, then promptly made a firework show out of its detonation. And in a final uppercut to cultural parasites like Miles, his earlier wish to “be responsible for something that gets talked about in the same breath as the Mona Lisa” is rendered hilariously literal. Ironically, by using her as the final domino in a film latticed with progressively more intricate chains of them, Johnson has made something that—amongst certain Agatha-lovers—will get mentioned along with Mona, too.