Rian Johnson delivers another crowd-pleasing whodunit with a star-studded cast.
Early in the proceedings of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a character throws down the gauntlet and challenges a roomful of people to solve a mystery so convoluted that it is promised to take at least a weekend to unravel. It’s a setup to an easy but effective joke: Obviously, obviously, no one has enough clues to piece it all together. Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who solves the mystery so quickly and so thoroughly that he may as well be a superhero. The punchline is played for every ounce of comedy that can be wrung from it. It’s a hilarious potential resolution, but for the characters and audience, the fun of Glass Onion is only just beginning.
I know the formula for Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries fairly well. So do you. More importantly, so does writer-director Rian Johnson. Even more importantly, Johnson knows that we know. Johnson knows that we know that he knows that we’re onto him. Since his debut film Brick, a hardboiled, high school-set noir, Johnson has proven time and again to be a master of taking familiar formulas and bending them to his will, injecting enough innovation within the blueprint to deliver invigorating genre exercises. In lesser hands, films like Brick or The Brothers Bloom or Knives Out could be written off as pastiche.
But these aren’t lesser hands.
Johnson wraps this second Blanc mystery (and it’s important to note that it’s a standalone entry rather than a continuation of Knives Out) in enough layers to keep everyone’s minds working overtime to try to unravel the game that is afoot. Glass Onion doesn’t necessarily try to outdo Knives Out, but the audience is coming into this movie with particular expectations, and the film lives in a constant state of push-pull between giving the audience what it wants and pulling the rug out from under everyone.
After the chilly Massachusetts setting of Knives Out, Johnson takes advantage of Netflix’s money and sends Blanc off to Greece, where tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has invited his closest friends, whom he lovingly refers to as “disruptors,” for an annual getaway. The disruptors are entrepreneur Cassandra (Janelle Monáe), politician Claire (Kathryn Hahn), scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), fashion designer Birdie (Kate Hudson), Birdie’s assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), men’s rights YouTuber Duke (Dave Bautista), and Dave’s girlfriend and aspiring YouTuber Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). The disruptors are bound to each other through years of friendship, collaboration, and, of course, betrayal.
Like Knives Out, the actors and Johnson’s script are perfectly in sync with each other, dishing out insults, clues, red-herrings, and exposition in a way that heightens the underlying drama of the schism threatening to destroy the characters.
While everyone gets plenty of chances to shine, it’s Hudson, Monáe, and Norton who stand out. Birdie is the kind of attention-seeking celebrity whose second favorite thing after fame is putting her foot in her mouth, and Hudson scores laughs every time one of Birdie’s faux pas is revealed; my favorite might be when Birdie compares herself to Beyoncé. It’s hard not to see Miles Bron as an Elon Musk-level dunce, and Norton leans into the arrogance. There’s a painting of Bron as a ripped boxer that looms over the room as an unspoken punchline that grows funnier each time we see it (and serves as a shoutout to Fight Club).
Then there’s Monáe, who walks away with the film. Cassandra is a walking side-eye, with Monáe embodying that distrust in a series of looks Johnson returns to often.
Johnson takes his time with the film’s setup, laying out clues and tidbits that will be recontextualized later. When it’s time to deliver the promised murder in the murder-mystery, it’s been set up so well that everyone is a plausible suspect. There is equal excitement and trepidation in every possible culprit.
Similar to Johnson’s knowledge of the mystery genre, he’s also keenly aware of the expectations and stigmas of sequels. Glass Onion at times feels like Knives Out on steroids. The millionaire at the heart of the first story is upgraded to a billionaire, the location goes from a home to a Greek island, and the mystery is tougher to crack (anyone who claims to predict the ending is lying). But Glass Onion has some subtler pleasures lurking, particularly in how a few themes and character moments call back to the first film.
There are moments where Glass Onion feels like a victory lap, but it mostly avoids back-patting in favor of bringing in viewers so that everyone is in on the fun. That sense of inclusion extends to Johnson’s key collaborators over the years, including cinematographer Steve Yedlin, composer (and Johnson’s cousin) Nathan Johnson, and actors Noah Segan (playing a different character than in Knives Out) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (have fun spotting his cameo). It’s endearing to see how far the core creative team has come since Brick.
Throughout Glass Onion, Blanc speaks often about seeing what’s right in front of his face, usually as a bit of meta-commentary. Part of that is Johnson toying with viewers, as Blanc is seeing layers and connections that nobody else can. Even though half the joy in mystery storytelling is trying to predict the ending, there’s an equal amount of enjoyment in seeing how the obvious can be obfuscated. As Glass Onion peels back the layers of its characters and mysteries, Johnson perhaps reveals his greatest strength: He’s a crowd-pleaser who knows how to deliver what the people want in a way they don’t see coming.
With two films in the Benoit Blanc series down (and at least one more on the way), Johnson’s Knives Out films have become the heir apparent to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films: star-studded hangout films that revel in the fun of genre formulas while also basking in the opulence afforded by major league budgets. This is populist filmmaking at its best.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery plays in theaters for one week beginning November 23rd, then debuts on Netflix December 23rd