The runaway success of Rian Johnson’s Knives Outa movie just about everyone loved on its release in 2019 (I remember watching it Thanksgiving weekend with a multigenerational pack of relatives, the last time we would laugh together in a theater for going on three years now), had everything to do with the way it reinvigorated a genre that was all but moribund: the Clue-style murder mystery. Gather a bunch of movie stars playing disparate social types in an enclosed, isolated place (in the event, a Gothic mansion in Massachusetts), knock off one of their number under mysterious circumstances, and call in a world-famous detective (Daniel Craig’s drawling super-sleuth Benoit Blanc) to ferret out the killer: What could be a simpler premise on which to hang a far-from-simple story involving class privilege, generational warfare, triple-fakeout plot twists, and instantly meme-able sweaters?
This Thanksgiving, Johnson is back with Glass Onion, which is not a sequel in the usual sense, given that the setting and all but one of the characters have changed entirely. Rather, it’s a new Benoit Blanc mystery, a conceptual throwback to the days of the Pink Panther or Sherlock Holmes, when a colorful crime-solver was the only constant between one standalone universe and another. (More recently, Kenneth Branagh has also revived Hercule Poirot Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nilebut despite the former’s solid box-office performance, neither has had the flair to match either Knives Out or that investigator’s spectacular mustache.) The case Blanc is cracking this time has to do not with a rich family’s battle over legacy real estate but with a group of old friends reuniting for a weekend on a preposterously lavish private island. Their host, tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), has invited this assortment of would-be influencers for what he has framed as a murder-themed party, where he will be symbolically offended and their job will be to figure out who among them did it and why
Introduced in a split-screen phone conversation early on are the more than willing suspects-to-be. Birdie (Kate Hudson) is a washed-up model who fancies herself a brave online truth-teller, to the horror of her embarrassed publicist (Jessica Henwick). Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.) is a brilliant scientist currently working with Miles on a top-secret project. Duke (Dave Bautista), who arrives sporting an arm-candy girlfriend named Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), is a men’s rights YouTube star trying to move into a more legitimate media space. Claire (Kathryn Hahn) is the governor of Connecticut, a silver-tongued neoliberal with behind-the-scenes ethical conflicts. And Andi (Janelle Monáe) is Miles’s ex, who helped him build the software that made him rich only to be cheated out of sharing the profits. For reasons no one can quite figure out, Benoit Blanc, though not a member of this longstanding group of self-proclaimed “disrupters,” has also been invited on their luxury jaunt to the Greek island retreat Miles has named after the Beatles song of the title.
Blanc soon solves the mystery that Bron has planned for the gathering, to the aggravation of his host. But there are tougher puzzles to follow, ones I will hint at only by noting that, as with the first Knives Out, the shifts in our understanding of the case often result from changes in perspective, as the same events are revisited from various characters’ points of view. A social media snippet on Birdie’s phone features Yo-Yo Ma in one of many star cameos. (Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Natasha Lyonne—all of whom have either starred in or written their own murder mysteries—share a memorable Zoom screen early on later, while later there’s a brief and more random appearance from a certain world-class athlete.) As the famous cellist chows down on a slice of pizza, he explains the musical concept of the fugue. Like so much else in Glass Onion, this is a clue in plain sight: the movie to come will follow a fugal structure, with the same key events recurring in different contexts.
The intricate puzzle-box plotting doesn’t click together quite as pleasingly as in the first Knives Out, and the identities of the suspects aren’t all as well delineated. Some of them, in particular Odom Jr.’s and Hahn’s underwritten characters, come off more as game pieces on the order of Colonel Mustard or Mrs. Peacock than as fleshed-out individuals. But Johnson’s twist-packed script and sight-gag-packed frame offer something few contemporary blockbusters do: attunement to the audience’s emotional response in the moment. Like Hitchcock, another genre filmmaker who was a master crowd-pleaser, Johnson knows how to pace a movie so that it alternates rhythmically between laughter and suspense, tension and catharsis, while playing on the viewer’s expectations of what a whodunit should be. Seeing Glass Onion in a packed theater, all of us whooping and gasping in unison, was a deeply satisfying social experience, making it all the sadder that the film is getting only a one-week awards-qualifying run in cinemas before streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 23.
After nearly a decade of contractually enforced glowering as James Bond, Daniel Craig seems to be having a positive hoedown of a fearfully
If there were an ensemble acting award at the Oscars, Glass Onion would be a lock for a nomination. The dialogue is fast-paced and verbally dense, and everyone in the cast volleys it back and forth with as much deftness as apparent pleasure. Norton is savage in his sendup of the software-engineer-as-visionary cult that has given us a world incompetently run by the likes of Elon Musk—though Miles is more a hippie-dippie aspirant to Steve Jobs status, greeting his guests barefoot and strumming on Paul McCartney’s guitar. Hudson plays the blithely un-embarrassable Birdie as a ditzy but calculating dame straight out of screwball comedy. And Monáe, a musician who has acted before mainly in dramatic roles, here gets a chance to play comedy as the initially haughty Andi reveals unexpected vulnerabilities. As for Daniel Craig, after nearly a decade of contractually enforced glowering as James Bond, he seems to be having a positive hoedown of a time as the courtly but tenacious Blanc, savoring each line as if it were a sip of top-drawer bourbon, his autumnal Knives Out tweeds replaced by pastel-forward resort wear (the gorgeous, goofy costumes are once again by Jenny Eagan).
John Lennon wrote the song “Glass Onion” (which plays under this film’s closing credits) as a prank. The lyrics are a nonsensical series of red herrings designed to confuse the kind of obsessive Beatles fans who spun wild interpretive theories out of every mildly obscure lyric. The joke of the song is summarized in the image of the title—a glass onion is something at once intricately layered and transparent, complex yet simple, elaborately constructed for no other purpose than to create something beautiful. Repurposing the phrase as a name for the high-tech pleasure dome of an empty-headed billionaire was a sly bit of satire on Rian Johnson’s part, but it works as a metaphor for his movie too.