Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d ever reference my Communication Theory class in my writing — sorry, Dr. Morgan! — but here we are. The “Social Penetration Theory” is the idea that as relationships grow, you begin “peeling the layers” of that relationship and growing interpersonal communication. I’m sure I butchered that, but the image from my textbook of the onion remains and could very well be used to describe a story like Rian Johnson‘s latest whodunnit, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is back to crack the case once again, this time to take down the affluent in the sequel to the uber-popular Knives Out. Johnson’s sequel ups the scope, ups the stakes and brings a brand-new all-star cast (including one phenomenal cameo), but does it succeed its predecessor that revitalized the whodunnit genre that’s mostly been reserved for films based on Agatha Christie novels? It’s complicated because the film’s attempt to be two steps ahead of the audience ends up resulting in a film that’s flimsier than the first.
A group of rich friends with all sorts of backgrounds all receive a wooden box at their doorstep. Claire (Kathryn Hahn) is a governor that’s looking to jump up for the Senate; Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.) is a scientist; Birdie (Kate Hudson), a model-turned-design and her assistant (but really) publicist, Peg (Jessica Henwick); Duke (Dave Bautista), a YouTube/Twitch streamer; and Andi (Janelle Monáe) all go way back and are called together for one of their friend’s annual get together. Their invite, however, is hidden at the center of a large wooden box filled with puzzles. Unimportant, but still noteworthy is that watching the characters put together these puzzles is more engaging than the Escape Room movies.
This friend is Miles Bron (Edward Norton), this universe’s Tony Stark-type tech billionaire with so much money that he can afford an island with a large, you guessed it, glass onion at the center of it. He invites his group of friends for a murder mystery game, but as we saw in Bodies Bodies Bodies, this party game becomes reality when someone dies. Luckily for them, Blanc is on the case and attempts to crack the case once again. Oh, and a man named Derol (Noah Segan) is there too, but he’s just in the background and you can’t see him, as he’d say anytime he interrupted the group.
When we first catch up with Blanc, we see a man broken by the pandemic. I guess the world had as much use for the world’s greatest detective as they did a janitor in an office space during the pandemic (though are we really led to assume that there weren’t any unsolved mysteries during this period?). In turn, Blanc goes for the next best thing: 2020’s darling, Among Us. This may come as a surprise to you but he’s not particularly good at the game.
In fact, the Among Us game is not the only mention of the pandemic that Glass Onion makes. While not as poorly shoehorned as the attempt at making Halloween Ends relevant was, Glass Onion still finds ways to mix in commentary whether it be by making certain people in the group seem like ridiculous right-winged morons or making a big deal of the fact that everyone is wearing a facemask — well, everyone except the aforementioned right-winged morons — before one of Mile’s assistants (played by Ethan Hawke) sprays them in the mouth with an undisclosed liquid. Is it an immunizer shot? We’ll never know!
I must confess — not to a murder — that I love the way that Johnson takes a quick detour to explain the lead-up to the moment when Blanc is about to drop the bombshell. It’s a technique that he also used in Knives Out, but whether due to the longer runtime or another factor, it’s done to an even greater extent in Glass Onion. Think of this year’s Barbarian and 2018’s Bad Times at the El Royale because just as you think you’re at the finish line, we take a detour back to the setup. It’s wonderfully done in Glass Onion, at least in terms of keeping the intrigue up during a near-two-and-a-half-hour film.
From the very start, Glass Onion will keep you guessing as to who the killer is as any good whodunnit will. Granted, there is a lot more setup to the murder than there was in Knives Out, which practically threw you right into the mystery. This is a blessing and a curse because on one hand, the cold open which sees all of the rich friends attempt to crack the code to the mysterious box is fun. On the other hand, it feels like a long time before we get onto Miles’ island.
I’m all here for red herrings, but the lengths that Johnson goes to paint everyone to be a killer can be overwhelming. Sure, you have to have scenes where a character is given reasonable motives should they end up being the killer, but actually going as far as calling a certain character “a killer” — in the most flattering way possible — or having to retcon, or rather explain, a certain situation after the fact, are cheeky at best but overly-transparent at its worst.
While Knives Out found a funny way of dealing with family politics, Glass Onion takes it a step further when tackling the affluent and powerful. The family in Knives Out were rich, sure, but I don’t think all of their net worths would compare to the characters in Glass Onion, let alone Miles alone. Glass Onion is a great satire of the affluent, though it’s no Triangle of Sadness. This year’s Palm d’Or winner went out of its way to build up the rich assholes before tearing them down to their last shred and the biggest separating difference between the two is that Glass Onion really talks about the strings attached to favors from anyone in a position of power and the moral compromise many of these make to be on the right side of Miles’ allegiance. Granted, Triangle of Sadness is not a franchise film that has to worry about upsetting general audiences. Glass Onion, however, is not afforded this luxury and has to play in the PG-13 sandbox.
After two films in this franchise, it’s hard to deny that Craig may have found his new franchise character. I overheard Johnson telling someone on the red carpet that Craig had to re-learn the southern accent and wanted to start from scratch. Again, my memory of the first is a bit foggy, but it’s certainly a little bit different in Glass Onion. Seeing more of Blanc’s life is a nice touch, but this film also allows Craig’s comedic chops to shine. He plays the “everyman” really well and it’s believable that he feels out of place around the rich friend group. Plus, that first scene with him is just wonderful. To the credit of Johnson’s writing, Glass Onion is a funnier film than its predecessor both in its written dialogue and nonverbal jokes which only helps Craig that much more.
But even more so than Craig, Monáe really shines in the film. They have a heftier part than what you may think going in — no spoilers here — and they absolutely kill it. Monáe can flip the switch from coy and intense with ease and it’ll be hard for your eyes to follow anything but them during the film. There’s a scene where they confront the entirety of the group and it sent chills down my spine. Andi feels betrayed by the group and even more so than the murder mystery, you’ll be waiting to see more of this mystery unravel.
The rest of the ensemble is good. It feels like Hahn has had a resurgence in popularity since WandaVision, though I love her in the Bad Moms films and The Shrink Next Door — and yet, she’s somewhat of an afterthought in Glass Onion. I get it, her character is supposed to be the politician that seems like the “straight arrow” to the public, but putting that type of restraint on a comedic actor of Hahn’s caliber feels like a disservice. I’m glad she’s not doing her schtick that she does in, say, Bad Moms, but she felt so restrained at a time when her popularity has likely never been higher. It’s nice to see Norton in a non-Wes Anderson film, but nothing’s special about this portrayal of an obnoxious billionaire.
I think that the only notable ensemble members are Hudson and Henwick, who are paired together for most of the film. Their dynamic as the ignorant celebrity who “tells it as she sees it” a la our recent former president and their manager/publicist is easily the funniest part of the film. Peg is constantly trying to put out the fires Birdie starts, and there are quite a few ranging from a “tribute to Beyoncé” (I think you can imagine where that went wrong) or using slurs that are vastly outdated. As Blanc wonderfully puts it, “There’s a difference between speaking the truth and not thinking before you speak, wouldn’t you agree?”
But for as great of a job at misdirecting the audience as I think the film does, I sense that the third act will be divisive. Without spoiling it, it’s all there right under your nose from the get-go. However, because of the fact that the “twist” may not be all that surprising, Glass Onion goes to great lengths to spice it up with an entire subplot that’s equally intriguing and flimsy. I was able to get on board for the early part of it, but the house of cards can easily be knocked down when you raise a very simple question or two. It’s nearly impossible to discuss without spoilers, but I’m sure most viewers will have the same question arise. Simply put, for a whodunnit that’s relatively grounded in reality, the last act really just goes balls to the wall and sets the whole film ablaze. For a film that’s a sequel to a murder mystery that took place in a beautiful mansion, it’s a bit of a big leap. And to steal a line from Blanc, “it’s just plain dumb!” if you attempt to think about it from a realistic standpoint.
And with a film with such a large ensemble, did we really need that one extra character? And no, I’m not referring to Hawke’s cameo in the film (the more Hawke in the world, the better), I’m referring to the cinematography which was done by a frequent collaborator of Johnson’s, Steve Yedlin. I’m all here for some nifty movements, but there are just a few too many swings or movements between characters. I was recently interviewing a cinematographer who said that they don’t want to overdo it with their cinematography in an effort to not take an audience out of the scene. In both Glass Onion and another recent film, Smile, the cinematography, while impressive, is distracting.
Johnson hits it out of the park with Glass Onion in the build-up to its crescendo. It’s a film that certainly goes for broke and while I’m not entirely sold on the last 20 minutes, much of the previous two hours are as entertaining as a film can get nowadays. Plus, it’s just original and a fun time at the theater. This franchise is luckily in its early stages, and it’s hard not to look forward to more installments. If Johnson were to name the next film after a Beatles song, I’d like to suggest a title: Do You Want to Know a Secret: A Knives Out Mystery.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery had its world premiere at TIFF on September 10 and will be released in select theaters on November 23 and on Netflix on December 23.