Rian Johnson | 2hr 19min
Like all the most famous literary detective series, there is little overarching plot to be found linking the first Knives Out instalment to its sequel, Glass Onion, besides the curious, eccentric genius at its centre, Benoit Blanc. This is not to suggest that there are few other similarities between the two though – Rian Johnson’s playfully enigmatic follow-up to the 2019 murder mystery is just as biting, engaging, and winding in its construction as the first, though potentially even grander in scale. Swapping out a family of wealthy beneficiaries living off their patriarch’s success for a private island of celebrities partying in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson slightly shifts the target of his satire without straying too far from the upper-class demographic that has so commonly populated the genre. The result is thrilling from start to finish, once again proving him to be a master of misdirection whose precise plotting of flashbacks and hidden motives heavily evokes that densely layered vegetable in the film’s title.
Detective Blanc is not one to mince his food metaphors, so to speak, with the giant glass onion house that tech entrepreneur and billionaire Miles Bron inhabits taking the place of Knives Out’s ‘donut inside a donut’. He warns us multiple times that like the impressive, transparent piece of architecture, the centre is in plain sight, and yet the thoroughly gripping journey of peeling back the layers keeps our eyes darting all around. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Blanc is always about ten steps ahead of us and everyone else, though Daniel Craig is able to play into the humour and weaknesses of the character in a way that he never could with James Bond.
Johnson is in absolutely no rush to play out the inevitable murder that Blanc sets out to investigate either, instead thoroughly setting the table with an intricate web of character dynamics, a huge amount of foreshadowing, and a meta-awareness of genre conventions reminiscent of the previous film’s central puzzle. Instead of a mystery novelist’s death inside a giant country mansion though, the setting of a murder mystery dinner keep us on edge before any crimes are even committed, letting us reflexively pick up on clues that may or may not point to some grand conspiracy.
Making the task of unravelling this mystery especially difficult is the captivating ensemble Johnson casts to dazzle us with charm and humour, as well as to sharply skewer archetypes of the wealthy elite. They come from across the political aisle, seeing Kathryn Hahn’s Democratic governor mix with Dave Bautista’s men’s rights activist, and they clearly vary in intelligence as well, with Leslie Odom Jr’s scientist rubbing shoulders with Kate Hudson’s hilariously daft fashion designer. Janelle Monae’s time in the spotlight as Andi ironically proves to be a disruptor to this party of old friends who call themselves the Disruptors, attracting snarky comments from those who didn’t realise she was invited, but it is the owner of this island and party host who may be the biggest personality of them all.
Ed Norton’s depiction of Miles encapsulates the worst aspects of each of his rich friends, so it is no wonder that Blanc heavily suspects someone at the party is out to murder him tonight. Miles’ fellow Disruptors may see through his façade as an intelligent, self-made billionaire, but he is entirely caught up in his own delusion, desiring an immortality akin to the Mona Lisa – which, by the way, he has rented from the Louvre and now proudly displays in his banquet hall.
Miles’ strength is entirely in the network he has built of equally powerful men and women who are there to cover up his secrets, and who he in turn will protect should they befall any financial, social, or legal troubles. The structure is firm but brittle, resistant to outsiders who attempt to smash it to pieces, but vulnerable to those on the inside looking to blow the whole thing up. As such, Miles’ greatest power is also his greatest vulnerability, and Johnson follows through on this class critique beyond the initial murder right through to Glass Onion’s wryly gratifying end.
It is almost useless to try and guess what this conclusion might be though within the film’s first hour, as Johnson delights in diverting our attention and subverting expectations at every turn. Some of this misdirection ends up feeling a little more contrived than the first film which rooted us firmly in Ana de Armas’ point-of-view, as here there is a little less logic to the timing of specific reveals and perspective shifts. Still, there is light-hearted mischief to Johnson’s narrative structure in its withholding of specific information, positioning itself as an omniscient yet unreliable narrator.
As we sink deeper into Glass Onion’s complex mystery, an uneasy tension builds, seeing Johnson’s camera move from sunny pool sides and opulent interiors to dark, foreboding corridors and courtyards. Miles’ pre-programming of all power to go off at 10pm as part of his murder mystery game comes back to bite everyone when they realise a real killer is on the loose, and as they nervously wander the sprawling mansion, the lighthouse outside becomes the only source of illumination. Brief spells of light from the beacon build a dynamic visual rhythm across the dead quiet of the island, while up above Johnson flies majestic drone shots over his characters, watching them desperately run from the danger lurking in the shadows. His visuals are extravagant but careful, pulling laughs and thrills from his audience with perfect timing and, most importantly, always keeping us at exactly the right distance from his characters.
Johnson’s love for rolling, twisty narratives may have started with Brick and Looper, but the Knives Out franchise seems to be the perfect canvas for him to combine that exhilarating plotting with a showier style of filmmaking he clearly relishes, allowing him to craft consistently entertaining crowd pleasers that never feel cheap or stale. By reinventing the murder mystery genre for a second time here, he proves himself to be a truly innovative storyteller, using its conventions not as crutches, but as keys to unlocking and playing with his audience’s minds. There is little else that can be said without ruining many of the surprises he has in store – Glass Onion is an incredibly enjoyable treat worth savouring every minute of.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is currently streaming on Netflix.