Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is the first (and quite possibly the only) pandemic film I’ll ever rewatch. First and most importantly, Rian Johnson’s follow-up the his surprise 2019 hit Knives Out, is a real movie, not a creative stopgap or a time-filler like those from other storytellers who were trying to avert boredom or inactivity while they were locked inside their homes. But like its predecessor, it’s whip-smart, joyful, and more than a little bit mischievous, yet another manipulation/reinvention of the classic whodunit, made with a cast whose thrill to be working produces an experience that’s as exuberant for them as it is for viewers. In short, it’s nothing less than perfect crowd-pleasing counter-programming for folks craving something that isn’t either superhero or horror-related.
Daniel Craig reprises his role as the Foghorn Leghorn-accented Southern detective Benoit Blanc, who’s become depressed and restless after languishing in isolation for several months without brain-twisting cases to solve. Blanc receives a timely reprieve when he is invited to the private island of Miles Bron (Edward Norton) alongside a group of the eccentric billionaire’s closest acquaintances, including soccer mom-turned-Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), former supermodel Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), Birdie’s assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), gun-toting men’s rights activist Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and his comely influencer girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), and Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monae), Bron’s estranged partner.
All are surprised to see Blanc, a newcomer to their privileged and insular circle, but his invite begins to make more sense when Bron announces that they will be playing an elaborate game to solve the mystery of his untimely, Clue-style murder. But before the game can get underway, old wounds are re-opened and secrets are revealed that complicate this initially cheerful reunion of old friends.
At the film’s start, Bron’s invitation to his guests arrives in the form of an elaborate puzzle box which requires their pooled efforts to open. One imagines that its complexities aren’t much different from the ways that Johnson’s mind works, not just constructing a sophisticated and multi-layered mystery to be solved by the film’s final scenes, but unpacking and deconstructing that puzzle just as easily as Blanc claims he did upon receiving it. It’s dizzying and wonderfully simple all at the same time, as he confidently shepherds the audience through one twist or turn after another, making them feel like they’re keeping pace with the mystery. Blanc’s keen powers of observation quickly fit together both the pieces of the puzzle and Bron’s guests’ relationships—and obligations—to one another. As he sizes them up, Blanc maintains an outsider’s naivete with a keen portion of Southern-friend subterfuge.
Without spoiling anything, a delightfully inventive pivot that occurs more than halfway through the film reminds viewers that some of the murder mystery genre’s foundational expectations have not even been met, and the story is already closer to its payoff than to the crime that set their hunt in motion. That Johnson waits so long to spring his trap speaks to his skill in breaking down and reinventing this extremely familiar formula, as well as his joy, translated effortlessly to the audience, in spending time with this colorful ensemble. In fact, he’s so nimble with his surprises that even when some of them rely heavily on coincidence or otherwise seem very unlikely, if not impossible, they remain as pleasurable to watch as the waves of the Greek sea lapping onto the beaches of Bron’s island.
As in Knives Out, Craig seems positively giddy to get to inhabit a character who’s clearly smarter than everyone else in any room he’s in, and yet one whose syrupy curiosity charms them into underestimating him. But not unlike Ana de Armas’ sweetly frantic performance as Marta in the first film, it’s Monae’s turn as Andi that forms the story’s heart—a perfect accompaniment to Blanc’s steel-trap mind. And although audiences have seen Miles Bron’s sort of glad-handing, effusive, platitude-spouting industrialist several times on screen before, Norton’s palpable intelligence makes his phoniness so convincing that you understand why he’s seduced his friends into doing his bidding.
Among Bron’s pals, Kate Hudson stands out the most brightly as Birdie, twisting the effervescent qualities that made her turn as Penny Lane so appealing back in Almost Famous into a level of narcissism so malignant that she believes a withering putdown is actually a compliment. Odom is entirely believable as a scientist facing a brutal crisis of conscience, Hahn’s own sharp-edged relatability serves her politician character’s ambitions—and self-rationalizations—and Bautista plays his douchebag social media star with a knowing wink. Meanwhile, Johnson’s longtime collaborator and good luck charm Noah Segan pops up again as a character who is more superfluous to the plot than in Knives Out, but he remains welcome and wonderfully refreshing every time he shows up on screen.
In the best possible way, the closest cinematic analogy I can draw in energy and appeal to Glass Onion is Ocean’s Twelve, which similarly avoids retracing the steps of its predecessor, and is also so brisk and entertaining that viewers feel lucky to be invited into the VIP section with the movie stars who are partying there.
That’s also what distinguishes this film from the dozens of movies made during and about the pandemic that have tried to mine its isolation and inactivity for personal (much less historical or sociological) insight. Ultimately, it’s a movie about deciding whether or not to capitulate to the emotional, social, or economic forces that reinforce or validate our worst or weakest or most desperate instincts—and the cost when you do, and also when you don’t.
Like almost all of Rian Johnson’s films (especially the more recent ones), Glass Onion offers a kind of proletariat wish fulfillment without exerting moral righteousness like a sword striking down anyone who identifies with its entitled (and importantly, wannabe) one-percenters. After two-plus years stuck indoors with mostly our collective anxieties to keep us company, that sensation feels especially good; his film offers an escape, an astute commentary, and visceral catharsis, all at once—which is a puzzle few right now seem able to solve, but he makes look especially easy.