Film & Television

Welcome to Murder Island: ‘Glass Onion’ and ‘The Menu’

Forty-seven years ago, Lady Mallowan died in Oxfordshire, England. This was, of course, sad news for her husband, renowned archaeologist Max, and daughter, Rosalind. But, it might not have registered more broadly except for the fact that Lady Mallowan was also Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie.

In her illustrious career, Agatha Christie wrote 66 novels (plus another six under a pen name) and 14 short story collections. Her work has been adapted for radio, television, movies, graphic novels, and video games. Her play Mousetrap opened in London’s West End in 1952 and — except during the height of COVID when all theatres were shuttered — has never closed. And Christie remains the bestselling fiction writer of all time, beating out the likes of Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, J. K. Rowling, and even Dr. Seuss.

Mysteries and detective fiction are not my favorite genre. But, I’ve read several Christie novels, and there’s one I’ve returned to multiple times. It was originally published in the U.K. in 1939 and named for a macabre (and racist) nursery rhyme. The U.S. edition, published the next year, used only the last line of the poem: And Then There Were None. The premise, that ten seemingly unrelated people are trapped on an island and dying one by one, is intriguing and the solution, when it’s finally, revealed is brilliant.

Christie herself was exceedingly proud of the book. “I had written the book … because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling, and yet had a perfectly reasonable explanation; in fact, it had to have an epilogue in order to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been… I don’t say it is the play or book of mine that I like best, or even that I think it is my best, but I do think in some ways that it is a better piece of craftsmanship than anything else I have written.”

You don’t have to look far to find authors and screenwriters drawing inspiration from Agatha Christie. In fact, two current films, Glass Onion and The Menu, drop their protagonists, murderers, and victims on islands just as Christie did some 80 years ago. In both cases, the tight quarters, colorful cast of characters, and inability to escape add to the tension onscreen (and our enjoyment off).

Glass Onion is billed as a “A Knives Out Mystery,” and while it isn’t a sequel to the 2019 award-winner in the traditional sense, it does deliver another two-plus hour of Daniel Craig’s southern-fried detective Benoit Blanc. Blanc, with his slow drawl and dandified style, is a direct descendent, albeit with a different regional accent, of Christie’s Hercule Poirot. While his mannerisms may get in the way, he is always the smartest person in the room. “I’m very bad at dumb things,” he explains when someone assumes he, acknowledged as the world’s greatest detective, must be awfully good at the boardgame “Clue.” “It’s a very dangerous thing to mistake speaking without thought to speaking the truth,” he explains to Kate Hudson’s aptly named Birdie after she justifies compares herself to Harriet Tubman on Twitter as her “authenticity.” Craig, no stranger to recurring roles — he has five James Bonds under his belt — appears to be having the time of his life.

And, truly, what’s not to enjoy? A half-dozen VIPs have been invited to the private Greek island of digital billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton). The place is remote, gorgeous, and luxurious. The guestlist includes model turned clothing designer Birdie, state senator Claire (Kathryn Hahn), brainy programmer Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), men’s rights Twitter personality Duke (Dave Bautista), and, surprising everyone, Bron’s estranged and unfairly impoverished business partner Andi (outstanding Janelle Monáe). There are also a handful of personal assistants and lovers (and personal assistants who are lovers). Oddly enough, Blanc has been invited, assumedly to solve the murder mystery game Bron has planned. He does so immediately, jumping the gun so to speak, but then an actual murder takes place, followed by another. Everyone has the means and a motive.

Screenwriter and director Rian Johnson infuses the film with sidebars, winks, and inside jokes. At the start, Blanc is in his bath playing a virtual game of “Among Us” with Angela Lansbury (who starred for years in the heavily Christie-influenced Murder She Wrote), Stephen Sondheim (who cowrote 1973 murder mystery The Last of Sheila), Natasha Lyonne (star of Johnson’s upcoming detective series Poker Face), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (costar of 1985’s Fletch). Other cameos include Serena Williams, Yo-Yo Ma, Jackie Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, and Hugh Grant. Although Knives Out received slightly better reviews (and didn’t show up on streaming digital quite as fast), I think Glass Onion is more fun.

Any fun promised at the beginning of Mark Mylod’s The Menu is dispelled pretty quickly. Again, a core group of extremely entitled twenty-first century muck-a-mucks are invited, then trapped, on a seemingly idyllic island. There’s a senator Richard (Reed Birney) and his wife Anne (Judith Light), restaurant critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her publisher Ted (Paul Adelstein), film star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero), and tech executives Soren, Dave, and Bryce (respectively Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang). The final guests are obsessed epicurean Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date “Margot” (Anya Taylor-Joy).

All of the above are the guests of — and, we soon learn, at the mercy of — diabolical genius Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and his calculating maîtresse d’ Elsa (Hong Chau). The diners are locked in a restaurant/concrete bunker, flanked by muscled (and probably well-armed) bouncers. They’re served exotic (to the point of absurdity) courses that deliver ever-more threatening morality lessons. Soon we learn that Slowik has assembled the exclusive group, and charged them more than $1,000 a head, with a particular end in mind. (This is not really a spoiler; the film’s trailers reveal this much and more.) So, in The Menu, the fun isn’t about answering the question, “whodunnit?” Rather, you’ll find yourself wondering, “Why?”, “How?”, and “Who, if anyone, will escape?”

Meanwhile, there’s black comedy galore as Mylod and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy cleverly skewer self-important foodies, Instagram addicts, celebrity culture, and the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. Be warned, The Menu weaves together multiple genres but probably falls most squarely into horror — smart, stylish horror, but horror, nonetheless.

Although they take different approaches (and have markedly different final acts), both Glass Onion and The Menu, owe some of their success and much of our enjoyment to the late, great Lady Mallowan. We are deep into Agatha Christie territory here — if, that is, Christie had lived long enough to relish the just desserts of today’s most loathsome “disruptors,” social media influencers, and “tech bros.” I think she’d be pleased.

Glass Onion is available to stream on Netflix.

The Menu is available to stream on HBO Max.

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