Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
- Director: Rian Johnson
- Writers: Rian Johnson
- Starring: Daniel Craig, Kate Hudson, Edward Norton, Dave Bautista, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom, Jr., Kathryn Hahn, Madelyn Cline
Rian Johnson knows you’ve done your homework. He knows you’re familiar with the murder-mystery genre and he knows what you will and will not be expecting. He also knows you’ve seen his last film, Knives Out, and knows that you’ll be keyed into what tricks he has up his sleeves for its sequel, Glass Onion. But rather than change the game entirely and do something bigger and more outlandish, he mostly hews closer to what worked so well the first time around. You can only reinvent the wheel once, after all.
Of course, it helps that the original film was so much fun to begin with, a subversion of a genre that had gotten stale and predictable, filled with deliciously rich characters that were as easy to love as they were to hate. With Glass Onion, Johnson (who again writes and directs) picks up the “world’s greatest detective” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and drops him into another secluded location to solve another confounding murder. Whereas in Knives Out, it was a bickering family, here it’s a group of self-appointed “disruptors” that are indebted in one way or another to their wealthy benefactor Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Think of Bron as Elon Musk if he were able to think more than 2 steps ahead at any given time.
The secret sauce within Knives Out was in its varied cast, and Johnson has struck gold again in Glass Onion. Kate Hudson is Birdie Jay, a washed-up model/influencer whose laundry list of problematic statements is one of the film’s best recurring gags, but who was bailed out multiple times by Miles. There’s Dave Bautista’s Duke Cody, a kind of Alex Jones/Joe Rogan wannabe and his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), who see Miles as their ticket to stardom. Scientist Lionel Toussant (Leslie Odom Jr.) is Miles’ chief scientist. And then there’s Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), who was suddenly and unexpectedly cut out of Miles’ company recently.
Bron invites the disruptors and Blanc to his private Greek island for a murder mystery party, and it’s here where Johnson throws his characters into the blender and the fun ensues. He smartly establishes each character’s quirks and personalities, and why they would have a big enough axe to grind to commit murder – though it’s not clear who the first victim will be until about the halfway point. But if Glass Onion falters, it’s in the characters that Johnson has assembled. Each of the actors performs amiably – more on that in a minute – but they’re painted with too broad a brush, and some simply linger in the background while the action takes place around them. The script and the dialogue still contain Johnson’s signature humor and politics, but Knives Out burrowed deeper into the inner workings of its characters. Nevertheless, the murder mystery aspect of the film is its biggest strength, as it unravels layer after layer of exposition in a way that improves on the already high watermark of the first film.
That being said, Monáe and Craig are the clear highlights here. Without giving away plot details, Monáe’s character goes through a monumental shift after the murder is committed that will make you want to immediately rewatch the film to see if any tells are visible. And Craig is clearly having the time of his life as Blanc, unraveling the mystery in his own signature style. While Johnson has proven adept at making films of varied genres, I wouldn’t be mad at all if he continued making Benoit Blanc films for the rest of his career.
Knives Out presented the Thrombey family as a representation of the fractured American discourse under the Trump presidency, and there’s a way to read Glass Onion as another metaphor for Trumpism. Each of the disruptors/murder suspects is sycophantic in their deference to Bron’s whims simply because he holds the financial keys to their futures. Johnson keys into their acquiescence, which provides the narrative backbone once the murder takes place, and it’s no stretch to compare the characters to all of the Republican enablers that allowed Trump to fester and ravage the country; they smear Miles in private but lack the backbone to say otherwise in public. Of course, there’s also the obvious read as a critique of Silicon Valley vapidity and insecurity, which works equally well.
As if the film wasn’t enticing enough with its story, Johnson employs plenty of unique visual tricks to keep the viewer invested. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin (who’s worked with Johnson on most of his films) makes the film dynamic and exciting; there’s a sequence around the midway point featuring a lighthouse that unfolds as a brilliant piece of blocking. Rick Heinrichs’ production design is delightfully dense, especially as we get to explore the island and all its eccentricities. And Jenny Eagan’s costumes – another highlight of Glass Onion’s predecessor – serve as pitch-perfect representations of each of the characters’ inner and outer lives.
One of the joys of experiencing Knives Out was in going to a packed screening and relishing all the twists and turns of the mystery. With Glass Onion, Johnson has partnered with Netflix and, while the film will have an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, it will primarily be seen at home, which is sure to diminish the fun Johnson has intended. It can be disheartening when a filmmaker replays the hits when making a sequel to their own film. But Johnson, Craig, and everyone involved are clearly having so much fun that it jumps off the screen and becomes an all-encompassing experience.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery will screen in select theaters for one week beginning November 23 and will be available to stream on Netflix on December 23.
- Knives Out was able to eke out a Best Original Screenplay nomination in a crowded field in 2019. Adapted Screenplay will have its share of contenders, but I think it’s the likeliest category for the film to be nominated.
- An argument could be made that Knives Out was the first film out in the Best Picture field. The reception to Glass Onion when it premiered at Toronto indicates a strong level of support from general audiences but, as with most things, it depends on Netflix’s level of support behind the film. Though a good deal of their films like Bardo, White Noise, and Blonde haven’t received favorable reviews on the level of Glass Onion, the film still doesn’t read as Academy-friendly enough to warrant a Best Picture nomination.
- The film is a virtual lock for the SAG Ensemble award (another indicator of its potential Best Picture chances) but if any performer stands a chance at receiving a nomination, it would be Janelle Monáe. Supporting Actress is a chaotic field this year, and Monáe fully makes the performance her own.
- While I’d love to see the film get its fair share of craft nominations (especially costumes!), I don’t think there will be enough support behind them to carry on to nomination morning.