Film Review – Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
2022 has given us a wealth of murder mysteries and “whodunnits,” each having various levels of success. Writer/director Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022) stands near the top of the heap. A follow up to his hit Knives Out (2019), Johnson takes us on another romp with Southern Gentleman/Renowned Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). As many sequels do, this one takes everything that made its predecessor work and ramps it up a notch. This is a bigger, fancier, and more complex escapade, while maintaining Johnson’s playful spirit and keen eye for social commentary. While this may not hit the highs of the first film, it is still a fun, witty, and entertaining endeavor.
What Johnson understands – as well as many of the good entries in the whodunit genre – is that the central mystery is only of secondary importance. Anyone who is paying attention can probably sus out the main culprit early on. Instead of having the audience play a game of “guess who,” Johnson’s writing and direction puts emphasis on character. He fills the screen with colorful personalities, each one with unique motivations, and watches how they interact or conflict. The question isn’t about “who” did it, but rather “why” they did it. And in the middle of it all is Blanc, navigating his way through it all with his own set of quirks and eccentricities.
This time, Blanc is taken to an exotic Greek island where wealthy tech guru Miles (Edward Norton) has invited his friends for a weekend of luxury and hijinks. Among them are fashion designer Birdie (Kate Hudson), Twitch streamer Duke (Dave Bautista), politician Claire (Kathryn Hahn), scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Andi (Janelle Monáe) whom Miles shared a previous relationship. We learn that each of them have reasons to come to the island, and their own shaky relationships with Miles. When things turn deadly serious, our favorite private eye jumps into action.
The narrative has a clever way of establishing the dynamics of the group. An opening scene features each person receiving an invitation from Miles in the form of a puzzle box. While most of them work together to open it (showing that they are willing to play along with Miles’ rules) Andi smashes the box to smithereens. She is clearly the outlier, and Monáe plays her as such. She gives the best performance. Although the others have their singular moments to shine, they have little to do as the plot progresses. That is not the case for Andi. In fact, the further things move along, the more interesting her character becomes. Monáe gives Andi a multitude of facets, from hard and tough to vulnerable and hesitant – each one believable and organic. Benoit Blanc may be the central character, but Monáe is the heart of Glass Onion.
The location is a far cry removed from the cold, autumn environments of the first film. Steve Yedlin’s cinematography captures the visuals in lush, sun kissed vibrancy. From the surrounding waters, the yellows and greens of the island, to the extravagance of Miles’ mansion, the setting comes straight out of a postcard on steroids. The production design and art direction highlight Miles’ absurd narcissism. You know this guy has a warped sense of reality when he has a robot specifically made to carry luggage. He shows off the actual Mona Lisa in his dining room just because he has the money to do so. Miles talks about wanting to be remembered like that famous painting. Given all the materialism strewn about, one would think that he was simply trying to buy his way to notoriety.
That’s where Johnson’s ear for social commentary comes into play. Those who belong in the “keep politics out of art” group are going to have a tough time getting though this. The production does not attempt to hide its political leanings. Miles’ power and buffoonery can be tied to specific political leaders or infamous social media CEOs. All his so-called “friends” are the minions blindly clinging onto his every word. The narrative does an excellent job of detailing how each character act as constituents to this one person. Their individual success is tied to their leader and severing that bond could very well mean severing their own well fare. This is not subtle stuff. The dynamics of the group is a near mirror image to how people will remain loyal to their political party regardless of how ridiculous leadership may sound. Johnson understands that this set up is rife for tension. Thankfully, he plays into the allegory instead of shying away from it.
How he goes about doing that is less convincing. Where the first Knives Out had a tight, focused narrative, Glass Onion is more sprawling. The structure is loose and messier. There is a ton of celebrity cameos, many of which appear as faces on Zoom calls. These feel unnecessary – more like favors as opposed to story necessities. Johnson takes a big risk by folding the structure in half – stopping midway through and doubling back from the beginning. This is meant to recontextualize what we see. Johnson adds new information by presenting events from a different perspective. However, this approach sacrifices momentum. By reverting to the start, the pacing takes a major blow. It is interesting to see how things change from different viewpoints, but there is a noticeable dip in energy. This section is repetitive and takes a long time to catch up. It is only when we get to the present that the narrative gets into a groove again.
But that is a minor quibble in what is a very good caper. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is the next step in what is hopefully a building franchise. Although Daniel Craig made a name for himself as James Bond, he is quickly making Benoit Blanc a signature role. And Johnson – who has excelled in noir and sci-fi – has come to the forefront of this particular genre. He has proven himself capable of delivering high quality entertainment that also has something smart to say. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Johnson/Craig partnership continue long after this latest outing.