Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Despite rubbing certain moviegoers the wrong way with his intentionally subversive storytelling, it’s hard to deny that Rian Johnson is one of the most consistently entertaining filmmakers working today. Love them or hate them, films like Brick (2005), Brothers Bloom (2008), Looper (2012) and even Star Wars: Episode VII – The Last Jedi (2017) were all designed to comment on their respective genre tropes, and the divided responses is exactly what Johnson wants. If there’s any film of his which seemed to work for just about everyone, it was the groundbreaking detective mystery Knives Out (2019). The now iconic film definitely didn’t require a sequel, but its success and popularity prompted Netflix to commission Johnson for a series of follow ups. The first of these is the newly released Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022).
Set during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Glass Onion reintroduces the world famous gentleman sleuth, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has apparently been starved for a compelling case since the conclusion of Knives Out. As it happens, Blanc receives an invitation from the billionaire and co-founder of technology company Alpha, Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who is holding a party on his private island. This isn’t just any party, as the guests are a handful of Bron’s rich, famous, high society friends, including former supermodel Birdie (Kate Hudson), Birdie’s assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), governor of Connecticut Claire (Kathryn Hahn), Head of Alpha Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr), men’s rights influencer Duke (Dave Bautista), Duke’s girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) and Miles’ former business partner Andi (Janelle Monáe). The invitation is to solve Bron’s mock murder mystery, but it doesn’t take long for Blanc to figure out that each of them have a reason to murder Bron for real.
If the original Knives Out was Johnson’s subversion of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Glass Onion is definitely Johnson’s subversion of Death on the Nile. This is apparent in the fact that Knives Out starts with the murder relatively early and then has the mystery unfold from there, whereas Glass Onion has the wheels turning for a long stretch before we witness any foul play. Of course, Johnson doesn’t just waste time in the build up, as we are given insight into each character, their world, perspective and (most importantly) which vapid aspect of the rich and famous they are parodying. Seeing all these personalities bounce off of each other makes for entertaining viewing, and it’s cleverly arranged in a way that helps the viewer stay focused on solving the impending mystery.
With that in mind, there are many fascinating layers to this onion once the crime is finally committed. These layers range from the multifaceted performances, to the plot structure itself. Johnson grabs nearly every little detail and uses them as pieces to the final solution, but it’s the narrative arrangement which provides the most exciting reveals. From this perspective, we can see how Johnson is subverting our expectations, in that the crime itself and how it’s committed is actually incredibly dull, uninteresting and stupid. This is part of the film’s strong sense of humour, as we are seeing a highly intelligent script reveal a crime which is far from the typically diabolical villain plot we’re used to. Happily, this isn’t a bug in the film’s design, but rather a deliberately remarked upon narrative ploy.
While that kind of craft successfully gives a new level of nuance to the detective mystery genre, Glass Onion does occasionally fall into one of the genre’s most persistently annoying habits. Specifically, some of the major plot points, twists, and story turns are only apparent once they are pointed out to us by Blanc. More importantly, major reveals occur because entire scenes are jumped over in order to hide information from the viewer, only to then cut back to these scenes when the information is needed. Withholding information from the audience is a cheap way to build a reveal, as it’s far more enjoyable and satisfying if the film plays fair. The best kinds of mystery films hide the solution in plain sight, but are so cleverly staged that the viewer doesn’t notice until it’s too late. Glass Onion doesn’t succumb to this trope too badly, but it’s enough to make it lose points when compared to Knives Out.
Additionally, Glass Onion exists in a slightly higher reality than Knives Out, given there are some key aspects which edge into the impossible. Where everything in Knives Out seemed completely believable, Glass Onion elevates things into a hyperreal setting, resulting in a handful of significant plot elements being vaguely futuristic. Considering that Knives Out was fairly grounded even in its most outlandish moments, it does come as a bit of a shock to see the sequel (almost) step its toes into the realms of science fiction. To be fair, these elements are probably possible with the correct engineering, but it’s definitely a bit jarring at times. However, this does serve narrative purpose, as it’s used to poke fun at extravagant nonsense only wealthy people can afford.
Johnson’s energetic direction mostly irons out these kinks, which is especially needed considering Glass Onion has to adhere to Netflix’s restrictive house style. For some odd reason, Netflix is intent on making every film and TV show to have the exact same look and feel, which is incredibly damaging to the artistic variety of cinematic storytelling. Knives Out had a unique look and a unique style, so it’s a real shame that Glass Onion (and its future sequels) will have some of that uniqueness sanded down by Netflix’s visual standards. In a way, this is like the modern equivalent of a successful original film being tainted by a straight to DVD follow up. Thankfully, Johnson is enough of a skilled craftsman to not lose too much of his voice, managing to infuse Glass Onion with enough flair to ensure that it’s a proper cinematic experience.
When all is said and done, it’s amazing Glass Onion is as good as it is, given everything it was up against. Knives Out was a complete story and was definitely not calling for a sequel, and downgrading that sequel to a Netflix film felt like a slap in the face. Happily, the result is a widely entertaining, expertly crafted detective mystery, which also exists as a complete story. Ultimately, Johnson’s franchise may grow to be one of most enjoyable series’ in recent years. Simply take Daniel Craig’s gentleman sleuth, place him amoungst a group of self-obsessed rich people, and have the mystery be a commentary on different aspects of privilege. If that’s not a recipe for at least another two to three films, I don’t know what is.
Best way to watch it: Not on Netflix. Can we have movies in cinema for longer than a week please?