WEATHER ALERT

Throwback murder mysteries breathe life into genre

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Streaming services may be facing an uncertain new year, but Glass Onion, the followup to 2019’s Knives Out, was a reliable hit for Netflix over the holidays. In fact, writer-director Rian Johnson is already dropping some clues about the next Knives Out pic. Also backed by Netflix, this will be the third outing for Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous detective known for his laser-like precision of mind and his somewhat amorphous Southern accent.

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Opinion

Streaming services may be facing an uncertain new year, but Glass Onion, the followup to 2019’s Knives Out, was a reliable hit for Netflix over the holidays. In fact, writer-director Rian Johnson is already dropping some clues about the next Knives Out pic. Also backed by Netflix, this will be the third outing for Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous detective known for his laser-like precision of mind and his somewhat amorphous Southern accent.

Of course, Netflix has always banked on murder, but its choices tend toward the grimmer end of the sudden-death spectrum, whether that’s the wintry despair of Nordic noir, the grit of big city police procedurals or the ethically iffy lure of the true crime genre, in particular the streaming giant’s queasy and continuing investment in the Serial Killer Industrial Complex.

In Knives Out and now Glass Onion, Johnson harks back to the comforting conventions of the classic murder mystery, which deals with death in a much cheerier way. Riffing on the rules set down by Golden Age queens like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers with self-aware smartness and genuine affection, Johnson creates something that’s both familiar and fresh.

Death in this old-school genre becomes a game, a divertissement. That might sound callous, but it works by cutting the violence to a minimum, by keeping the storyline rolling along past red herrings and clues, and often by making the prospective victim unsympathetic, even detestable. (While Hercule Poirot frequently points out there can be no justification for murdering even detestable people, it must be conceded that it makes for a lighter post-murder atmosphere.) Johnson serves the genre by setting up puzzle-box plots that are intricate but playful.

By design, one doesn’t get too emotionally invested in the suspects, who tend to be broadly but shrewdly sketched-in types. In place of the ex-Army majors, bluff industrialists and foreign femmes fatales of the between-the-wars murder mystery, Johnson draws on some very current character tropes.

In Glass Onion, it’s a billionaire tech mogul with some very irritating affectations who invites some old friends to an exclusive getaway in Greece. A compromised politician, a threatened scientist, a careless lifestyle influencer, a posturing masculinity guru and aggrieved ex-partner — they all have a reason for wanting him dead.

We also have a self-contained setting, another throwback to the Golden Age. In Agatha Christie’s day, that often meant a country house party or a small village, a snowbound train or a boat. Here it’s a private island accessible only by a hideously impractical Bansky-designed dock.

That temperamental dock also means a delay in police presence, which means we don’t get hung up on modern forensics. Since the heyday of CSI, there’s been an absolute mania for blood spatter and microscopic fibre particles and DNA, but this lack of lab facilities means Johnson can go low-tech, another Golden Age touch. Like many of his Great Detective predecessors, Benoit Blanc isn’t averse to physical clues — footprints in the mud, half-empty glasses, misplaced documents — but he prefers to focus on human nature, where truth and lies come out in observation and conversation.

The Knives Out franchise also channels the outright glamour of earlier cinematic adaptations of Agatha Christie, those unabashed entertainments from the 1970s and ’80s that featured fabulous clothes, luxe settings and star-stuffed casts, with big names dropping in even for relatively small parts. Johnson has cited the influence of Evil Under the Sun, which offered such pleasures as Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith as duelling divas, a Cole Porter soundtrack, and lots of flashy Jazz-Age-by-way-of-the-1980s outfits.

Edward Norton ( left), as Miles, Madelyn Cline as Whiskey and Daniel Craig as Det. Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. (John Wilson / Netflix)

In Glass Onion, we have Mediterranean views, Benoit Blanc in linen shirts, and wacky, surprising cameo appearances by Stephen Sondheim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hugh Grant, Serena Williams, Angela Lansbury and Yo-Yo Ma.

Finally, Johnson also hews to perhaps the key component of the best Golden Age mysteries — the promise that no matter how much we have been flummoxed by misdirection, mistaken identities, bluffs and double bluffs, there will be a satisfying ending. Those indeterminate, morally ambiguous conclusions we see in many modern crime shows may all be very well — and certainly more true to life. But there’s something undeniably soothing about gathering everyone in the drawing room — or the 2020s equivalent of a drawing room — and wrapping everything up in a bright bow of clear explication and unequivocal justice.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

History

Updated on Thursday, January 12, 2023 1:50 PM CST: Photo and trailer added.

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