What makes a good murder mystery?
February 1, 2023
Murder mystery has been a very popular genre since the 1920s with the iconic writings of Agatha Christie. Christie’s novels have then since been turned into famous movies such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. Murder mystery movies have taken over the media with their twists, surprises, and big reveals. They continue to be reinvented with new plots and culprits; however, some mystery movies fail to depict the full adventure and suspense of the mystery. One of the best recent examples of this contrast is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and 7 Women and a Murder.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is the second movie in the Knives Out franchise and was produced under Netflix. Its predecessor, Knives Out, has become one of the more renowned contemporary murder mysteries. There were high expectations for Glass Onion due to this, but it proved to be another example of a new murder mystery that successfully captivated audiences.
I only recently watched Knives Out and yesterday I saw Glass Onion. I wish more films were like that, absolutely excellent. They made me fall in love with films again
— James Ⓥ (@James___UK) January 28, 2023
Glass Onion details the journey of Benoit Blanc and a group of self-proclaimed “disruptors” to a private island in Greece. They are all trapped on the island, and they are even there for a murder mystery party. It has the basic makings of a murder mystery that we’ve seen before. However, Glass Onion manages to take audience expectations and completely disrupt them. Murder mysteries are known for having many culprits and then a reveal of the true killer — usually the one you suspected the least. Glass Onion takes this assumption and uses it to trick the viewers. Most of the appeal of a murder mystery is trying to figure out who the murderer is before it is revealed. In Glass Onion, a large star-studded cast is introduced, each with the motive and means to commit a murder. The movie makes the audience suspect one character and then the next. Yet in Glass Onion, the big reveal is the character people would have suspected in the very beginning — the one with the biggest reason and means to kill the victim. On paper, this seems like a lackluster twist, but Glass Onion manages to make the audience doubt themselves right until the reveal.
While diverting from the original twist, Glass Onion keeps some of the traditional aspects that make murder mysteries so appealing. The large cast is composed of complex and diverse characters, featuring Kate Hudson, Kathryn Hahn, Janelle Monáe, and other talented actors. Each character has a clear personality and motive. The movie, set in 2020, even uses masks to portray details about each character. The characters’ different personalities and personalized wardrobes make each scene enjoyable and allow viewers to analyze each character as a suspect. Glass Onion also features something more specific to the Knives Out franchise, which is large metaphors and symbols throughout the movie. Even the title serves as a metaphor for the mystery. The mystery seemed very complex and layered like an onion, but it was truly very simple and clear like glass.
7 Women and a Murder is an Italian murder mystery movie, also produced under Netflix and released just five days after Glass Onion. It received very little promotion from Netflix as well as media coverage. This may have turned out to be beneficial because the movie failed to be a captivating murder mystery.
7 Women and a Murder depicts seven women stuck in their family home after the patriarch of the family is murdered. The women spend the next hour of the movie talking to one another to try to figure out which one of them was the murderer. The women in the house contain a grandmother, mother, aunt, two sisters, a maid, and the patriarch’s old love. Where the movie falls flat is the mystery itself. The appeal of murder mysteries is the suspense and the time spent trying to decipher the clues as well as the actions of the characters. However, 7 Women and a Murder did not give the audience the chance to try to figure out the mystery for themselves. All of the “clues” and twists are revealed through dialogue. None of the character’s motives are revealed by accident or in private. The characters spend the entire movie discussing with one another who could have done it. It leaves the audience no time to speculate or become involved in the mystery because the mystery is so detached. The women literally sit down with one another and decide to start telling each other all of their secrets. It removes all of the fun and suspense from the story when there is no intrigue, secrets, or discussions behind closed doors.
The actual premise of the movie has a lot of promise. However, the lack of buildup and interest in the characters makes the movie feel dragged out and unnecessarily long. The characters, while not hard to differentiate, have little appeal or anything that would make the audience invested in them. Their personalities come across as very flat and they all fall prey to driving the plot and “mystery” forward rather than developing the characters and their motives. The audience never really gets to know the characters. Their motives are revealed by the characters telling the audience, and the audience just has to take their word for it. There is no sense of how or why the character might do that action. The audience never even sees the face of the patriarch or even sees him alive.
7 Women and a Murder is a remake of the French movie 8 Femmes. The movie follows the same plotline and character types. However, 8 Femmes has been reviewed as a successful comedy, while 7 Women and a Murder makes slight attempts at humor that land every once and a while. The fact that 7 Women and a Murder is a remake could have contributed as to why the story didn’t come across as successfully. In remakes, the emotion or appeal of the original can be easily lost, as can be seen in Disney’s 2019 The Lion King remake. A lot of remakes often rely on the audience’s knowledge of the original work to play on their nostalgia. Yet, 8 Femmes is a French film and not one that is commonly known by the international audience of Netflix. 7 Women and a Murder needed to have its own merit and charm to captivate audiences.
As a part of the Knives Out franchise, many people expected Glass Onion to be closely tied to the characters or style of Knives Out. However, the only thing Glass Onion and Knives Out had in common was the lovable detective, Benoit Blanc. Glass Onion took on a completely new setting and color palette. This was a smart move by filmmaker Rian Johnson, who wanted to separate Glass Onion from Knives Out completely. Trying to tie the movie into Knives Out or play off of the popularity of the first one would’ve been a safe move, but it would’ve also brought out the potential for the movie to be easily compared to Knives Out. Glass Onion and Knives Out find themselves in very different categories of murder mystery, and by not making it a sequel but rather a movie of its own, Johnson allowed Glass Onion the freedom to be judged for its own plot and not in comparison to Knives Out.
The contrast between the colorful Glass Onion and the lackluster 7 Women and a Murder shows how murder mysteries require a number of factors to work together to make them successful. It is hard to come up with a completely new mystery and premises when people know murder mysteries so well and there have been so many made. Glass Onion proves that there is always a new angle and twist that can be created to make a new, complex murder mystery. 7 Women and a Murder calls into question the trend of remaking the same murder mysteries every few years. The Agatha Christie novels have been made into successful movies time and time again, but stories can only be told so many times. The movie industry in general is in dire need of creators that can make new stories to captivate audiences.