Even before we see anything with the screen black, we hear the subject melody, the quiet and ponderous single line of piano music. What piece is this? One might ask. Eight minutes into the movie, in a convivial house party, we get the answer.
Fashion icon Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is intrigued by the tune as well when she tries to open a mystery box sent to her by the tech mogul Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Before she can Shazam it, the answer is given by none other than the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma himself. That’s Bach’s ‘Little Fugue’ in G minor, he explains to Peg (Jessica Henwick) while munching on some sort of finger food in her house party.
“A fugue is a beautiful musical puzzle based on just one tune. And when you layer this tune on top of itself, it starts to change and turn into a beautiful new structure,” the virtuoso casually points out. An apt description of what’s to come.
And, of course, Birdie Jay can’t get her answer, for she’s talking to a lamp to Shazam the tune thinking it’s Alexa.
Writer/director Rian Johnson’s sequel to Knives Out (2019) is a totally different offering in sight and sound. A comedic murder mystery in the vein of an Agatha Christie novel with the Knives Out detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, never mind his accent), a dapper Columbo, a sunny locale, striking set design, a well-written screenplay and seamless editing, and not least, an animated ensemble cast, we get an entertaining feature.
The connections are multiple, watching it viewers become sleuths themselves to decipher the associations and allusions, visually, musically, and cinematically. Spotting all those cameos is fun too: Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Serena Williams. Or check out what’s Ethan Hawke and Hugh Grant are doing there.
Miles is a friendly egotist, seen as a genius by some, extreme danger by others, probably knowing his personal philosophy is “fake it till you make it.” The tech titan has invited his insider group of ‘Disruptors’ to an annual reunion weekend. This time the event takes place on his private Greek island in the form of a murder mystery party; his guests are to solve his own murder. The Disruptors are fashionista Birdie Jay, social media influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), politician Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), and scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.)
The key person to show up shocking them all is Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) who used to be Miles’s business partner. So, some background story needs to be peeled off. Miles’s home on the island is the Glass Onion, a spectacle of an architecture that looks exactly as its name denotes, a metaphor for the core truth actually is hidden in plain sight through visible layers.
The sounding of the hourly dong that echoes through the island (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of those moments in the movie that evokes a chuckle, especially when we hear Miles say he got Phil Glass to compose that. Yes, that’s Philip Glass, the minimalist composer creating that one note sound of the gong for Miles. No, not a joke on Glass but more on the self-importance of the tech mogul himself.
Same with the Mona Lisa encased in a sensitive glass protective display case. More chuckles from that too. The world famous painting is on loan to Miles from the Louvre via the French government during the pandemic when all arts venues are closed and revenues lost. Miles is pleased that the art world, even government, bows to his whims, “I wanna be responsible for something that gets mentioned in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. Forever.” And now he has it in his palm, no, not the Mona Lisa, but a little solid hydrogen fuel crystal which will be a gamechanger in global energy source. His plan is to invite national leaders to the Glass Onion to unveil it.
As the story begins to peel off layer by layer, we know each of these Disruptors have their reasons to be loyal to Miles as their personal interest depends on his patronage. Ironically, they also harbour resentment towards him.
Half way into the movie an important layer peels off, revealing the backstory. I have no issue with such a twist, for now I anticipate new conflicts on a different level, heightening the tension. From here on, viewers are shown the point of view of Andi’s character. Reminiscence of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, we can now see more clearly what actually happened in the previous sequence of events, this time, from the perspective of Andi’s; now we understand her as our reluctant heroine.
Repeating the scenes isn’t necessarily redundant, Bach would have said. That’s exactly what he did with the fugue, the same tune appearing in a different context in the contrapuntal composition. While he would probably have found the movie ending shocking, he’d likely be curious to hear songs by singing groups called The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Bee Gees… among others, or listen to the harpsichord and orchestral theme by a 21st century composer called Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin).
From Bond to Blanc, Craig’s collaboration with the Johnsons has made the Knives Out movies a promising and entertaining franchise.
~ ~ ~ Ripples