Still Incredibly Sharp — Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
The key to the giddy fun of the first Knives Out movie was in Rian Johnson’s ability to play with genre conventions and whodunit tropes. Already established as the type of filmmaker willing to subvert even the most precious of fan expectations with The Last Jedi, Johnson used his pen and his lens to poke at the fanbase just enough to get them engaged, and then dared them to think critically about everything they were seeing. When it came to Star Wars, there were many who held the franchise too sacred to accept this challenge (and even for those who did, the final product still had some misfires), but with a murder mystery it was about as perfect as it could be. I’ve said many a time that what makes these stories work is the ability for the audience to play along, and Johnson executed that idea tremendously by turning everything we knew on its collective ear, reinforcing the thrill of the game while simultaneously mocking and paying tribute to centuries of established elements for knowing laughs and surprising poignancy.
With that film’s rousing success, there was no doubt that there would be a sequel, with Netflix winning an insane bidding war for two more entries. The question that lingered was whether or not Johnson could make lightning strike twice and deliver another satirical romp that still served as a legitimately intriguing case for the viewer to solve. Would the return of Daniel Craig as the genteel sleuth Benoit Blanc lead to new avenues of lampooning homage, or rehash the same beats as before? In the latter case, the movie could still be funny and engaging, but the previous adventure made it very clear that Johnson feels it’s not worth doing something if you can’t do it right.
As such, he was adamant from the moment Glass Onion was greenlit that this would be a sequel in name (and branding) only. This would not be a continuation of Knives Out, but a completely new story with new characters and angles, with only Blanc’s presence as a reference to what came before. And just like his first foray into the genre, he has made good on the promise of the premise, giving us another incredibly funny and incredibly sharp mystery that toys with our preconceived notions so he can shock us while encouraging us to be just that much more thoughtful and observant as we don our detective caps.
The first trick is the classic literary device of making sure everyone is a suspect. In Knives Out, Johnson played up every pastiche of the privileged family riding the coattails of their patriarch’s success, exposing their hypocrisy while also giving all of them a reason to kill. Here, he takes a lateral step and puts the crosshairs on a different kind of societal parasite — the self-important rich who see themselves as “disruptors.” Billionaire entrepreneur Miles Bron (a deliciously smarmy Edward Norton) invites all of his closest friends and influencers to his private Greek island with a puzzle box, the idea being that collectively solving the brain teasers that open it will prime them for the real fun, a weekend retreat where they will solve his (staged) murder through a grand mystery roleplay.
All of the guests immediately demonstrate why and how they can be easily corrupted, thus establishing a believable motive to off him for real. Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is a lead scientist at Bron’s company, Alpha, and instantly proves himself a “beta” by refusing to push back on any of his boss/friend’s ideas, no matter how outlandish they may seem. His silence is complicity, ergo his reputation (or worse) is on the line if things go pear-shaped. Kathryn Hahn plays Claire Debella, the Governor of Connecticut who’s in a tight race for a U.S. Senate seat. Obviously any scandal that connects to her (Bron heavily donates to her campaign) would doom her ambitions. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a social media personality and “men’s rights activist” who still lives in his mother’s basement despite his overly masculine protestations and fitness model girlfriend, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). He has an online persona and brand that has to be maintained or heightened at all costs. Former model and fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is constantly on the verge of being “cancelled” due to her completely oblivious nature and addiction to wealth and fame, enabled by her eternally put-upon assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), who has cast her lot in with the out-of-touch celebrity and can’t extricate herself. Rounding out the group is Bron’s former busines partner Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), whose feelings are made apparent quite quickly, as she opts to smash the puzzle box with a hammer rather than play along.
Everything is set up for a lovely and dangerous game, save for one hitch, Benoit Blanc himself. Upon arrival at his titular island manor (the film is named after a Beatles song), Miles pulls Blanc aside in wonder, as he reveals he never sent him an invitation. Brushing off the surprise and deciding that the presence of a world-renowned detective might make things feel more interactive and credible, Bron quickly initiates Blanc into the circle, and in doing so, lets us all know just what Johnson’s stakes really are. Because as it turns out, everyone is basically an incompetent dipshit to one degree or another. Duke overcompensates, Andi is established as having been duped out of her own company, Birdie apparently wore blackface once as a “tribute” to Beyoncé, and Miles himself dishes out malapropisms like appetizers at TGI Friday’s.
This is where the true mystery begins. One of the most fun bits for the amateur gumshoe watching is the idea of having the clues and solutions hidden in plain sight, and Johnson takes full advantage. Just about everything is laid bare before our eyes, including the fact that a lot of what happens relies on sheer stupidity rather than evil genius. This not only informs the case but the comedy as well, as idiocy itself becomes an uncontrolled variable. It’s a bit of narrative gold that everyone involved plays to the absolute hilt, especially Norton, Craig, Monáe, and Hudson, the latter of whom I have never really liked, but I couldn’t help but giggle at her fully committed performance, leaning so far into Birdie’s aging toxic entitlement (think Paris Hilton and Britney Spears mixed with Melania Trump) that it’s a wonder she doesn’t fall over every other scene.
Johnson is even able to make fun of himself a little, as Miles normally plays like a stand-in for Elon Musk, but at one point delivers a monologue that almost quotes verbatim the famous “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to” line from The Last Jedi as an example of performative subversion masquerading as revolutionary or innovative thought. There’s another absolutely brilliant meta gag when Miles is about to start the game. I’ve mentioned it before, but after the last movie, Johnson gave an interview where he hinted at a potential future spoiler for all genre films going forward, in that Apple does not let villainous characters use their products in media. It’s apparently part of the licensing agreement that the logo can’t be seen on screen if it’s in evil hands. Given that a lot of movie fans have become aware of this caveat over the last three years, and might be looking to see who holds an iPhone and who doesn’t, Johnson creates a side tangent where Blanc requests an iPad as a prize if he solves the case. This cheeky wink then becomes relevant to the main story, as everyone’s use of their devices becomes a potential clue in itself. Again, he’s always looking for a way to make sure we’re all in on the joke while still ensuring that we’re puppets on his strings, which only draws you in further so that you’re constantly thinking while you’re laughing.
It’s an utter delight watching these people go so over the top without it becoming an outright farce, and you can tell that the entire cast and crew is having a blast doing it. Oddly enough, in a roundabout way it’s the closest thing the movie has to a true flaw. With the success of Knives Out, everyone wanted a piece of Rian Johnson and this sequel. As such, everyone makes the most of their screen time, and there is an absolute slew of celebrity cameos, from Serena Williams to Ethan Hawke to Hugh Grant, and even the posthumous unintentional final performances of Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury. The whole of Hollywood seemingly wanted in on this, to the point where I slightly worry whether or not the next film might take the franchise too far into Austin Powers territory, where the third entry was more a string of references and cameos rather than a fun parody, or even a functional story. I think Johnson et al kept things at a respectful limit here, but if he’s not careful, we could hit critical mass next time out.
Other than that, and the fact that Knives Out is in the title despite Blanc being the only remotely connective tissue (I understand why it’s used for branding purposes and to make sure casual viewers know that this is part of the franchise, but I sincerely hope they do away with it for the next one), there is almost nothing that could be considered “wrong” with this film. The script is beyond clever, the production design outdoes itself from the last flick, the performances are just as top notch as before, and Benoit Blanc has proven infinitely more compelling of a character for Daniel Craig in two movies than his turn as James Bond could do in five. There was even consideration to give Blanc a different accent in this picture, just to playfully needle us once again and add another mercurial dimension to the role. Just the idea of going from Southern gentleman to, say, Midwest “dontcha-knows” makes me chuckle more than a lot of actual comedy films that have come out in recent years.
It’s all down to the fact that Johnson treats this as the game that it is and always has been. And like all good games, you learn a little something each time you play so that you do better and better as you go along. When you keep that in mind, all of this becomes that much more enjoyable and you leave the experience feeling that much more aware. In the first film, one man’s death wound up laying out all the dirty laundry for a family of shitheels. They don’t face any real comeuppance other than the loss of their inheritance, but as Ana de Armas timidly yet triumphantly sipped from that mug, you as an outside observer could still derive massive satisfaction in the small victories and the wisdom gained. The same is true here. You can’t have a case where everyone’s the killer and/or everyone else gets killed (that was already done with Clue over 35 years ago), so how do we improve the game? Make it just a bit more grand, a bit smarter in some aspects, a lot dumber (intentionally so) in others, and leave with the knowledge that there are more losers than just the guilty party. And from that, allow yourself to question things just a little bit more, not just for mystery movies, but for life in general. Because even when the truth is staring you right in the face, there’s fun in knowing you can’t take everything at face value.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How quickly would you have solved the puzzle box? What other American accents should Daniel Craig try out in future projects? Let me know!