When Knives Out was released in 2019, it not only was a fantastic riff on old-fashioned mysteries, it gave us an instantly iconic original character in Benoit Blanc. Rian Johnson’s skilled hand created a virtual puzzle box of a film wrapped in vintage charm as rich and warm as aged bourbon but as deft and self-aware as modern audiences expect in genre cinema. Now, Blanc has returned for an entirely different kind of mystery in Glass Onion, which loses some of the verve of the first film but none of its style or humor.
Tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has gathered some of his oldest friends to his private island off the coast of Greece for a murder mystery weekend. In attendance are fashionista Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), men’s rights influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), and corporate scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.). Oddly enough, invitations also were sent to Miles’ ex-business partner Andi Brand (Janelle Monae) and “last of the gentlemen detectives” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Once the weekend begins, someone gets murdered for real, and it’s up to Blanc to figure out who done it and why while he learns that there are multiple layers to everyone’s possible motives and connections to each other.
Possibly Rian Johnson’s strongest talents as a writer/director is his ability to create fully-functional microcosms in each of his film that touch on our reality but veer off into their own sphere. There’s the high-school boiled noir of Bully, the steampunk modernity of The Brothers Bloom, and even his take on Star Wars shifted focus into a world all its own. While Knives Out was likely his most grounded setting to date, it still had the feel of a kind of alternate universe.
Johnson once again does this for Glass Onion, transplanting Blanc from an earthy, intimate parlor-mystery setting into a gleaming, vibrant jet-set world. While both films end up touching on similar themes, the vibe and energy of this world is wholly different from the previous, and the application of the mystery quite different. It’s like hearing a pop group from the 2000s cover a song from the 1940s. Is it better? Is it worse? That’s a highly subjective question.
What it still is, however, is unbelievably engrossing and precisely executed. Johnson has paid attention to every detail from the smallest items in the frame to the exact words that each character uses. In fact, a character’s speech patterns end up becoming a clue for helping Blanc untangle the mystery at the film’s center. Like with Knives Out, a lot of this doesn’t become obvious until Blanc walks us through things, but most of the clues are honestly right there in the open if you know where to look.
One distinct change, which will hit each viewer a little differently, is the non-linear structure of the film. The second act is essentially an extended flashback that shifts focus from third-person to first-person as it retells the film up to that point from Blanc’s perspective. Knives Out had a more classic mystery structure, which pertinent flashbacks as they became relevant, but Glass Onion ends up going in a different direction that eventually leads to a similar place.
And I’ll be honest; when the second act started, I was worried that Johnson would end up spelling everything out and spoiling part of the mystery. I shouldn’t have stressed, because even after the flashback is complete, there are still many unanswered questions. In fact, the second act ends up adding another level of complexity to things and makes us look at everything we thought we saw and knew in an entirely new context. Answers give way to more questions, and the journey deepens. Instead of giving things away, Johnson has laid down the most tempting of bread crumbs to keep us desperate for more.
At the center of all of it is Daniel Craig’s intensely entertaining performance as Benoit Blanc. Blanc is a character so rich and well-written that he has to have been taken from a series of novels that also spawns a TV series. It’s to Johnson’s credit that Blanc feels so familiar yet is a wholly original creation, but what makes him come truly alive is Craig’s dedicated and occasionally off-the-wall interpretation of him. Here we get to see several new sides to Blanc, who’s not been dealing with COVID lockdown well. Without something to stimulate his brain, he’s gone a bit stir crazy, and during his time in Greece he seems almost a bit too endearingly eager to jump into a murder mystery. We also get a glimpse of his home life and discover that Blanc is gay and living with a partner. While it’s never outright said that he’s gay, Johnson has confirmed it in interviews, and you do not live with the person Blanc lives with without being in a relationship with him. Like, for real.
The rest of the cast definitely brings their A-game here, with each character essentially customized perfectly to each actor’s skill set and persona. Kate Hudson is perfect as a bimbo model turned fashion designer who’s constantly being cancelled for racially-insensitive faux pas. Dave Bautista doesn’t have to work hard to embody a right-wing meathead who carries a gun in his Speedo. Kathryn Hahn is quietly That Bitch with a glass of white wine fueling her sarcastic comebacks. But nobody here rests on their laurels; everybody is on board, everybody is all in. The dynamic between all the characters is organic and lived-in. Heck, just seeing how each character wears (or doesn’t) their masks at the beginning of the COVID pandemic tells you everything about their characters.
The two stand-outs however are Edward Norton and Janelle Monae. Norton’s Miles Bron is equal measures charming, hilarious, and cringe in the best ways. Clearly based off of Elon Musk with a little Steve Jobs thrown in, Bron always acts like he’s the most intelligent person in the room regardless of whether that’s the case or not (it often isn’t). Norton makes Bron’s solipsism seem almost cute while never shying from the “get a load of this guy” energy oozing from his every pore. I can’t go into much about Monae’s role without giving plot details away, but suffice it to say that she has the biggest challenges of pretty much anyone here, and she handles them with such skill that it’s a delight just to see her on screen.
But despite the stellar cast, there are times when Glass Onion just isn’t capable of quite reaching the highs of its predecessor. Like I said earlier, Rian Johnson is supremely skilled at his microcosm building, and he doesn’t disappoint here. The camera work, the use of lighting, the framing of each scene, the sublime score by Nathan Johnson, it all works in complete harmony. But is this the right setting for the chamber-room energy that birthed Benoit Blanc? Sort of.
Johnson has tried to transplant the same vibe from Knives Out to this much more expansive and demanding setting, and it works most of the time. However, the final act turns far too much into a bit of an action film which, while being ultimately satisfying in the moment, doesn’t quite hit the same notes as before. Is different bad? Not inherently. But the climax here feels far too drawn out, and the social commentary aspects of it a bit too much on the nose. Both films squarely satire the elites of the world, and here we have the elites of the elites, but it feels too obvious and (I really, really hate saying this) a bit too preachy. However, when things finally do hit the fan, the chain of events leading to the finale do light up a lot of pleasure centers of the brain, and that makes things go down a lot easier.
Although Johnson’s reach slightly exceeds his grasp here, it’s extremely easy to recommend something as multi-faceted as Glass Onion. It has comedy, drama, action, mystery, and almost a dozen fantastic performances full of charm and charisma. Even if the final act has some issues that leave it a little wobbly, it’s an impressive floor routine and completely sticks the landing. If anything, it makes me desperate to see where Benoit Blanc will end up next.
FBOTU Score: 7.5 out of 10 (B but almost a B+…it’s my scale, I can do what I want.)
Glass Onion is streaming exclusively on Netflix.