Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on its streaming platform on Friday, December 23.
Before you worry too much about dissecting the meaning of “Glass Onion,” both the main title of Rian Johnson’s second “Knives Out” feature (and just as delightful and inspired as the first film) and the name of a Beatles song from their White Album, we’ll just go ahead and direct you to the (likely?) key lyric from the 1968 jam: “Well here’s another clue for you all / The walrus was Paul.” Talk about an a-ha moment, right? Alas, John and Paul were having a bit of fun with that particular ditty, as most of their “Glass Onion” is less about unraveling fan theories than straight up poking holes in them.
It’s a fitting title for Johnson’s “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” which delights in unspooling theories, the bread and butter of the genre, and then poking right through them to find something even more witty and amusing. Rest assured: Johnson isn’t reinventing the mystery movie with “Glass Onion,” but he is having a hell of a time lightly deconstructing it and reorienting it to suit his whipsmart script and central super detective. Perhaps the only whodunit in which its main character will, upon solving the film’s central crime, proclaim it’s all “so dumb!” (and be both right and wrong in that declaration), and all the better for it.
Johnson needn’t worry about a sophomore slump, because while “Glass Onion” holds some resemblance to his 2019 smash hit (stacked casts, lavish locations, Daniel Craig having the time of his goddamn life), this sequel is zippily and zanily its own thrill ride, and Johnson can’t churn these babies out fast enough.
Set in May of 2020 — and very much an “early pandemic” movie, and not just because Johnson folds in COVID-era living when it comes to introducing his characters, from a Zoom-addled Kathryn Hahn to a properly masked Daniel Craig, but because the film offers the kind of nutty charms we all needed so badly both back then and right now — “Glass Onion” sets itself apart from it predecessor right out the gate. It’s clear Johnson is putting up his new perimeters this time around, entering the scene long before anyone is murdered (nearly half the film goes by before anyone actually dies), slowly introducing his large cast (though holding back on just how exactly they’re all so bonded), and misdirecting everyone and everything toward another (sort of?) crime before the real bloodbath begins.
Anyone who has seen not just “Knives Out” but any other whodunit mystery should be wary of accepting the easy clues and codes that appear in its first act, but Johnson is giddily laying out key information right for the start. One of the real tricks of the genre: making necessary exposition — who knows who and why and how and what it all means — feel plucky and fun and breezy, which Johnson does with aplomb. We know someone (maybe even multiple someones) will kick the bucket before the film ends, but Johnson makes us wait for all that for quite some time, stretching out the film’s first half with one sticky little mystery before slingshotting back and reassessing the whole kit and caboodle.
The entire time, Craig’s Benoit Blanc observes it all. But that’s not obvious when we begin, as the bourbon-mouthed detective arrives in a state of major disarray. Lockdown has been hard on Benoit, who has taken to spending whole days in the bathtub, not even stirred by well-meaning Zooms with a cadre of famous pals (the film is rife with cameos, none of which will be spoiled here). What he really needs is a great case to wake his brain back up, and it just so happens, one is taking shape even as he lolls in the tub.
Around the country, a variety of flashy personalities are receiving massive wooden boxes which, only after some clever prompting, reveal themselves to be a stack of puzzling games that also contain a banger of an invitation in their secret center. We soon meet their recipients, a decidedly odd collection of seemingly great pals, including striving governor Claire (Hahn), semi-cancelled influencer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson, iconic as ever), scattered scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), and musclehead YouTube star Duke (Dave Bautista). Each is thrilled by the box, all part of the outsized joy of being pals with billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton doing his own spin on Elon Musk), who loves games and twists and turns and also dragging his very weird friend group along on annual vacations of his own design.
This time: Greece (filmed on location, and looking fittingly sumptuous), a private island, one long weekend, and the promise of a murder mystery game, just for laughs. But someone else has invited along Benoit Blanc, the world’s best detective, and while that may sound like the world’s best party favor, anyone with half a brain knows to run for the hills if Blanc is dispatched to solve a murder, because that means someone is about to die. (The question this time is not so much how, but who? Now that’s a twist on top of a twist.)
And who of these people — plus an excellent Janelle Monae as Miles’ steely-eyed ex-partner Andi, Jessica Henwick as Birdie’s righthand gal Peg, and Madelyn Cline as Duke’s girlfriend Whiskey, all of whom also come along for the ride and add much to the proceedings — really does have at least half a brain? Maybe that’s Benoit Blanc’s biggest mystery of all.
Along the way, Johnson pokes his own holes in capitalism, the lifestyles of the rich and famous (eyes peeled for Miles’ hulking robot), influencer culture, pandemic concerns, and even our current energy crisis, plus dishing out at least half a dozen very good jokes about both Jeremy Renner and “hard” kombucha. (You can practically feel Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin rolling their eyes at the wild world these people inhabit, one brought to rich life by a talented production design team, and that is a compliment indeed.)
To say much more about the plot would be silly, as it would both spoil a film that is at its very best when it’s misdirecting and redirecting and constantly turning in and out of itself (like a glass onion, there are so many layers to peel, though the answer itself is really quite clear) and detract from the joy of seeing a well-honed mystery like this one unpacked in increasingly bright ways. Fans of the first “Knives Out” will find plenty of the same elements to love, though Johnson has studiously worked to ensure that “Glass Onion” stands alone, both because of its self-contained story and the filmmaker’s resistance to repeating his old tricks.
Of a piece, the pair (and at least one more to come, though at the film’s TIFF premiere, Craig said he wanted to keep making these films for the rest of his life, and Johnson vowed to keep making them until his star stops taking his phone calls) thread together beautifully. If you loved Benoit Blanc in “Knives Out,” a KFC-inflected dandy who somehow manages to be the smartest person in the room, the nuttiest, and the most empathetic, seeing him tossed into the deep end of yet another wacky-rich whodunit will only further bewitch you. Craig is never as easy, as loose, as silly as he is when kitted out in Blanc’s signature neck scarf, and suffice it to say, the man wears a lot of neck scarfs in this film (plus one truly outstanding swimming costume).
As Blanc “solves” one mystery, another pops right up, and Johnson happily shifts gears to tell a whole new story, wrapped inside his first one (like an onion? oh, sure) and then turned inside out (like a Bloomin’ Onion? let’s not get too silly) to bend brains and tickle his audience and start the whole damn delightful thing all over again. Why have these people been brought together? Who among them is a murderer? Who among them is a murderee? (Truly, a major question in this zigging and zagging genre joy.)
Asked and answered: who can solve the case? (Benoit Blanc!) And who is going to love watching it? (Well, you can probably guess, we did give you all the clues.)
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release it in theaters later this year, and on its streaming platform on Friday, December 23.