Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022): Rian Johnson’s pre-pandemic bit of whodunit deconstruction, Knives Out, was a once-in-a-generation film. If Kenneth Branagh’s stab at bringing one of Agatha Christie’s legendary murder mysteries to the big screen confirmed how much the genre had fallen off the straightforward track, Johnson’s send-up of the genre’s structural and character conventions was the throttle that put the engine back in gear. It was a film in which the satirical slaying of inherited wealth, in all of its various hypocrisies and ignorances, was not so much a promise as it was a delightfully earned surprise conjoined with its narrative unorthodoxy.
Add to that it’s elaborately staged, Clue-esque production and costume design, and Knives Out not only became a quick autumn favorite, but the best kind of phenomenon: one that quietly earned its sizable reputation through word-of-mouth with impressive box-office results still intact, and all without flaunting the kind of open-endedness that would immediately tease a sequel.
In other words, despite Netflix’s current plans to only finance two sequels starring Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), it’s a film whose delights are so accessible and endless that the franchise it has now spawned with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery has no reason to end any time soon. That being said, Blanc’s presence among the nouveau riche is perhaps the only consistency in this follow-up, as Glass Onion trades in the seasonal aesthetic of its predecessor’s upstate manor for a boiling hot summer on a private island off the coast of Greece. With a bigger house in which to hide bigger twists, it’s all to say the film is a more lavish and outwardly funny affair, even if these elements have now become the promise rather than the surprise.
While the rest of the world is quarantining in the early months of COVID-19, it’s to this island that disgustingly-rich billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has invited a small group of his close friends to join in on an annual weekend gathering. With no connection to Bron, Blanc’s invitation is assumed to be a joke concocted by one of the guests in response to the elaborate murder mystery game the tech guru has planned for them — the high-profile author he claims to have written it with is one of the film’s many spirited, self-aware jokes. The guests in question include Bron’s right-hand man (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a governor and Senator-in-waiting (Kathyrn Hahn), a jacked-as-all-hell men’s rights influencer (Dave Bautista), a dingbat model-turned-entrepreneur (Kate Hudson), and Bron’s former business partner (Janelle Monáe), whose arrival is an even bigger shock than Blanc’s considering their recent parting of ways.
Much like the resentful and slightly deranged Thrombey family, each of these “disruptors,” as Bron collectively terms them, have enough contempt for their host to bring death into his obscenely vast estate, but are too tied to his fortune (and unethically so) to act on it. Naturally, when the “game” devolves into actual murder, Blanc immediately smells a rat, leaving everyone at the mercy of his investigation. The hard right turns the proceedings take from there aren’t worth discussing at the risk of ruining the reveal, not just the final one but the many that surface along the story’s complex route to the finish line.
Just as he did the first time around, Johnson fashions an ingeniously clever script, one that’s as much an elaborate puzzle as the one Bron’s friends receive in order to unlock their invitation in the film’s opening moments. Glass Onion is another celebration of the classic whodunit, but with a modern blockbuster disposition, the kind that doesn’t encourage the viewer to get lost in the mystery by trying to solve it themselves. Johnson’s ideas compare little to his brilliant execution, and he has built his latest conundrum around the experience of witnessing where this particular roller coaster will take us. If the first hill had us seething with anticipation, he’s fully prepared to send us upside down.
Perhaps having understood the amount of trust he earned from audiences with Knives Out, the writer-director only asks for a bit more patience in return, as he’s keen to take his time in breaking the seal and rounding up Blanc’s suspects. Glass Onion spends much of its first act opening old wounds between this close-knit group of new money ignorami, if only to allow the sting of foul play to sink in that much deeper. It’s never been more evident how much Johnson has enjoyed creating such a despicable lineup, not to mention how much hilarious passion he commands from the performances of his ensemble.
Craig, now having officially resigned from the role of James Bond 007, is a more committed and charming Blanc, relishing the opportunity to solve a mystery that transcends the claustrophobic trappings of Among Us, which he has been humorously reduced to in lockdown, albeit in the company of some delightful cameos. He, of course, is the odd man out, but so bubbly is Craig in his return to the character that few are able to take Blanc seriously enough to see his findings coming. That includes the master of ceremonies Bron, who Norton plays with an unctuous passive-aggressiveness, barely concealing his “Musk-iness” with unintentional malapropisms in a way that’ll make you wonder how he’s gone several years without such a commanding presence. The same goes for Kate Hudson, who gets some of the biggest laughs as the air-headed Birdie, who has canceled and rebuilt herself so many times that her devoted assistant, Peg (Jessica Henwick), is forced to keep her phone hidden for fear that another racist tweet might be unleashed.
But if anyone has been set up to shatter the fragile, yet calamitous relationships that come to a head in Glass Onion, it’s Monáe as Andi, who was recently cut out of Alpha, the booming business she helped create with Bron, without so much as a penny for her troubles. Monáe simmers with wholehearted anger as the only disruptor willing to disrupt the weekend by calling out everyone else for doing Bron’s bidding. She’s practically a stand-in for Johnson himself, though she treats their rapturous behavior and poor taste in the face of unfathomable wealth with far greater severity. Johnson’s approach is a much lighter one, indeed, though his resorts to broad comedy still manage to pack as hefty a punch, regardless of the erratic threat they pose to the mystery itself.
Glass Onion has its heart in all the right places, and all the ambition an earned sequel can possibly be granted. But it might be in too many places. That money from Netflix never goes to the film’s head, but Johnson’s desire to go bigger and meatier also brings with it the occasional lack of focus that would doom a far less original film.
Knives Out had the benefit of not only getting to its point first but also hiding its point well enough that its slicing-and-dicing made it the right film for a time in which one family of inherited wealth sat at the center of American politics and another at the center of American media. Glass Onion responds correctly, sniffing out the COVID-induced vainness behind brand-building and liberal agendas. It’s one of the most astute films since the pandemic to understand this attitude shift, but the extroverted broadness of its humor also indicates that far too many impurities have manifested since 2020 for any one film to take down all at once.
It’s to the benefit of all who embrace Glass Onion that a filmmaker as wily and innovative as Johnson is willing to try, especially since the film equally taps into the newfound sense of purpose the moving image has taken on since its return from the pandemic. It not only solidifies the fresh legacy of its predecessor but is sure to carve out one for itself in the years to come. Johnson has had plenty of target practice, to be sure, and if the remainder of his time were spent crafting stories as sinuous as this one, well then that’s time well spent.