This blog contains spoilers for Glass Onion, Knives Out and several Saw movies.
This might be contentious, but I stand by it; Saw II has one of the best twists of all time.
For those who don’t remember/don’t plan on watching the film, a quick recap. Corrupt hothead Detective Eric Matthews manages to track down the serial killer Jigsaw – a cancer stricken moralist who puts people he sees as underserving of their lives into elaborate, violent 'games' that usually require some kind of sacrifice to survive. But before Matthews can bring Jigsaw in it’s revealed via a discovered video feed that another of the killer’s games is in motion – several criminals have been locked in a house full of traps with only two hours to find the way out before a deadly nerve agent kills them. And Matthews’ estranged son Daniel is among them. Suddenly, the cop who never follows the rules has no choice but to do exactly that in order to save his son. Jigsaw’s instructions? Daniel will be released if the cop sits and talks with the killer – something that sends the tension skyrocketing as we regularly cut to what is playing on the feed and see the increasingly dire situation Daniel is in.
Of course, Matthews' patience fails him. He snaps, beats Jigsaw to a pulp, and forces the killer to take him to the site of the game. A brutalised Jigsaw obliges and Matthews arrives only to find no sign of his son – the feed was pre-recorded. The game happened hours before. Daniel is safe, but Matthews is ambushed by a Jigsaw acolyte and abandoned chained in a bathroom for his failure.
It's a brilliant, exhilarating reveal because it has the absolute rush of ‘oh my god, of course’ that characterises a good twist. And furthermore, it’s a twist that is completely rooted in the perspective of our protagonist, the perspective we’ve essentially shared for the whole film. There are plenty of clues the videos aren’t what they seem, but we don’t suspect that because Matthews doesn’t suspect that. It’s one of the reasons I still, somewhat controversially, think Saw II is the best of the Saw franchise.
But one of the reasons it’s so good is that it seems to understand something the later films don’t – which is that for a twist to work, it has to be a shock to the characters as well as the audience. Both the fourth and eighth Saw films feature similar timeline twists – in Saw IV the reveal is that the whole film has taken place at the same time as Saw III, in Jigsaw (8), the reveal is that that game we thought was happening simultaneous to the investigation actually took place ten years previously. On the surface, not dissimilar to the twist in Saw II. Except the timeline reveals mean nothing to the characters because a) they know what timeline they’re in and b) there are no stakes for them. And yes, both those films include a predictable reveal of a secret Jigsaw apprentice, just like Saw II, but in both the timeline twist is treated like its big, clever sleight-of-hand and in both they ring hollow because they don’t exist for any reasons of plot or character and they only work by the filmmakers not playing fair with the audience.
Which brings me to Glass Onion.
I want to make a couple of things clear. I liked Glass Onion and I like Rian Johnson. I think the first Knives Out is fantastic. I think The Last Jedi is the closest a Disney Star Wars project has come to reaching greatness. I haven’t loved everything Johnson has made (Looper has massive flaws and Brick is overrated) but he’s always interesting and Hollywood is a better place for having him. I’ll watch everything he does.
And look, catching Glass Onion at the movies by myself in the middle of a stressful day was exactly the tonic I needed. I laughed. I was engaged. I was entertained. When the midway reveal landed, I felt the same thrill as I did in the first film’s daring exposure of the killer in the first act.
But as the film went on something jarred for me, something that came into focus watching Glass Onion again with my family on Christmas. See, I’ve rewatched the first Knives Out several times. I believe a key mark of a great movie is being able to come back to it again and again. And yet watching Glass Onion a second time, I was bored. And quickly, the issue I’d had with it the first time around crystalised in my head. See, Glass Onion is breezy and fun and entertaining. It also absolutely does not play fair with the audience.
In the second half, we get a twist that is initially shocking but quickly rings hollow because it relies entirely on us not being shown a lot of crucial information that the protagonists are privy to. I mean, the film literally goes back and plays out its first half again with missing footage put back in to give context and reveal what Benoit Blanc and Helen are really up to. This allows for some gasp-worthy moments, but it’s like one of the traps from the later Saw movies where the characters can’t escape. There’s no tension if the outcome is assured. And there’s no marvelling at the cleverness of a mystery writer if they skip over clues that should be hidden via misdirection rather than straight up omission.
The issue is one of perspective. In most murder mysteries, we see from the point of view of the detective. We get all the same clues as them. In the end, they’ll piece it all together and reveal what happened and a good reveal will have us shaking our heads in disbelief because everything we needed to find the answer was hiding in plain sight all along. But the writer was smart enough to make us look elsewhere and of course, only the detective had the brilliance to piece it together. Good mysteries stand up to repeat viewings/readings because there’s fun to be found in noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, allowing you to marvel at how brilliantly you were played.
Glass Onion does not play us brilliantly. It cheats. There’s no way for us to guess that Andi is actually dead and the person we thought was her was in fact her twin sister Helen. There’s no way to guess that Benoit Blanc is in fact playing the vapid rich people on the island because Johnson removes all the moments where we see his plan in action, only showing them to us later. And this means that Glass Onion is a story told from nobody’s perspective but Johnson’s. We’re not in Blanc or Helen’s points of view, even though they’re our protagonists. It makes for a kind of untethered experience – all surface thrills, no real connection with anyone.
And the thing is, Glass Onion almost gets away with it because the ‘twist’ is so initially exciting that it becomes misdirection of a different kind, distracting us from the lack of a perspective character and ringing reminiscent of the first film’s early reveal of the killer – except that choice actually strengthened our connection with Marta (the protagonist) at the same time as thrilling us by breaking the supposed rules of the genre.
Look, I’m never going to be one of those bleating writers who insists on arbitrary ‘rules’ being followed at every storytelling juncture. Early on I was taught (and still believe) that for every storytelling rule you’re taught you can point to five classics that break it. What matters is that the audience are entertained, and Glass Onion achieves that. But I find myself a little bemused by all the breathless reviews hailing it as better than the first one (as far as I can tell purely because Edward Norton is Elon Musk and that’s a kicked goal for progressivism or something) when it doesn’t actually approach the clever, careful storytelling that made that film such a hit. And to me, the test was that lazy Christmas rewatching. I spent most of it on my phone. I didn’t much care to watch the film again because there wasn’t a lot to discover or further appreciate the second time around.
Anyway. It’s not for me to tell someone on Rian Johnson’s level what they’re doing wrong. Glass Onion is clearly a hit. But an Oscar contender that tops its predecessor? Come on. I guess my takeaway is that even if you’re not playing by the rules, you get a better result by at least playing fair.
Writing words about writing words.