Lee: ‘Knives Out’ is our generation’s Sherlock



“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” brings another thrilling adventure to the series since the 2019 film “Knives Out.”

Noah Curtis Lee , Staff Writer

No genre in entertainment has consistently enticed modern audiences like the detective story. Though the term detective was only coined in the mid-19th century, thanks to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the advent of the mystery genre set off a feverish new trend in popular entertainment.

And, in many ways, the lasting popularity of the genre makes perfect sense. We, as humans, are intrinsically fascinated by mystery. During the two centuries following Poe’s short story, a multitude of classic detectives would engross audiences. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nancy Drew, Dick Tracy; the list of once-household sleuths seems endless today. However, as entertainment progressed further and further into the modern era, the age of serialized detective fiction seemed to die down.

That was until Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” was released.

The film featured a new, Daniel-Craig-portrayed detective on the scene, vying to be the contemporary generation’s new preeminent detective. Detective Benoit Blanc had arrived, and he was here to leave a mark.

Blanc came as a breath of fresh air to fans of mystery, with his sharp deduction skills, an elegant tweed suit and a rich, velvety Southern accent. The film was a great commercial and critical success, and the whodunit genre, if only for one film, had been revived.

Two years after “Knives Out” released, Netflix announced it acquired the rights to two sequels for a steep $450 million.“Knives Out” wasn’t going to be a one-off mystery-solving caper, but a cinematic universe strikingly similar to the serialized detective literature that preceded it. Benoit Blanc was here to stay, though there was one question plaguing every “Knives Out” fan: Will the sequels hold up to the first one?

Though “Glass Onion” differs significantly from its predecessor in atmosphere and setting (the original maintained a homey fall sweater aesthetic, whereas “Glass Onion” has a more sexy, coastal bathing suit vibe), the core formula of the film remains unchanged. In other words, if you enjoyed the first film, you’ll likely enjoy each “Knives Out Mystery” following it.

The first “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion” are strikingly similar in terms of story structure. They both include cryptic call-to-actions, the falls of selfish characters and the triumph of cultural morality. It is in specific situations and character backgrounds the two films differ significantly. Though Johnson’s general method of character-writing remains consistent in the second film, the specific stereotypes he uses vary heavily from the first. The original film included a multitude of colorful characters, drawn from classical whodunnit tropes such as the patriarchal grandfather storyteller, the ungrateful trust-fund brat and the moral sidekick.

The characters in “Glass Onion,” on the other hand, are drawn from satirical — and much more prominent — sources, and almost every suspect is representative of a contemporary cultural icon. Leslie Odom Jr. plays Lionel Toussaint, who is a genius-intellect rocket scientist heading his own engineering start-up, a character description sounding vaguely reminiscent of a certain flamethrower-building Twitter CEO. Dave Bautista plays Duke Cody, whose toxically masculine streaming career feels perfectly entrenched between those of Joe Rogan and Andrew Tate. Kathryn Hahn plays Massachusetts Gov. Claire Debella, whose political corruption represents the general mistrust between Gen Z and our civic leadership. The list goes on.

Though not flawlessly, “Glass Onion” approaches our cultural sphere in a way that feels both critical and absurd, creating as much a sharp social commentary as a simple whodunnit.

Johnson constructs a narrative as a spider weaves a web. Rarely is there an empty line of dialogue in his works. Especially in the “Knives Out” films, he writes with intention, peppering a plentiful number of expository callbacks into the later events of the film.

While callbacks are to be expected in any screenplay worth its salt, Johnson uses recurring motifs so tightly and so meticulously that his full-circle writing should be highly commended. In “Glass Onion,” there is also a long sequence in which Johnson toys with the sequential structure of the film. Through this, he brilliantly recontextualizes previously seen information in a way that feels groundbreaking and complete — as if we the viewers are the ones arriving at conclusions.

Johnson is also — at times controversially — known for his distinctive use of comedy in screenplays. While many of the jokes in “Glass Onion” are pointedly clever, the humor is often hit or miss. Many of the jokes are referential; the film namedrops celebrities and expects the audience to laugh at each allusion. These references are sometimes slightly funny, but they tear down the fourth wall and decimate the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Sometimes, the film switches too suddenly between seriousness and quirkiness, giving the viewer tonal whiplash and ruining the dramatic effects of either quality. It often feels like Johnson is trying too hard to appeal to a hip, young audience in such a way that he seems like an overeager uncle desperately trying to get his apathetic nephew to like him. As a result, there are many out-of-touch references that completely fall flat (though of course some sixth graders may argue Among Us references are the divine apexes of comedy).

Regardless of the film’s flaws, the release of “Glass Onion” was a tremendous success for Netflix. With another installment of the “Knives Out” franchise soon on its way, it is safe to say that the detective story has cemented itself more firmly into the American conscience than it has in the last 20 years. Sure, it is impossible to know if Benoit Blanc will ever reach the level of cultural relevance that his predecessors possessed, but for all intents and purposes, it seems the lovable detective is here to stay.