Review: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Director: Rian Johnson

Stars: Daniel Craig, Janelle Monáe, Kate Hudson

Imagine for a moment that you’re a smug tech billionaire. You’ve grown used to there being no accountability or opposition in your life, but you’re also keenly dependent on the praise and reassurance offered by others. At great expense you decide to corral your closest followers, promising them a party. But your very control (or illusion of it) breeds such wild resentment that the party blows up in your face. All that money, all that showboating… what has it gotten you?

The parallels between Rian Johnson’s fictitious oligarch Miles Bron (Edward Norton) and tweeting Tesla goon Elon Musk are numerous, but not even Johnson could have predicted how the last month’s social media carnage would elegantly mirror the plot of Glass Onion – just as it is released, no less. Sequel to the wildly popular 2019 whodunit Knives Out, this is another chance to spend time in the company of louche master sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), granted a week’s cinema run before it lands unceremoniously on Netflix’s endless home streaming interface.

Perhaps in response to the pandemic years, Johnson has elected to pursue a more summery, escapist vibe this time out; turning to Agatha Christie’s more exotic classics for inspiration. Evil Under the Sun et al. We’re in vacation mode. Also, in the peripheries, Herbert Ross’ 1973 hate-mail-to-cinema The Last of Sheila seems like a miscreant progenitor; itself documenting a murder mystery party of begrudged alliances that turns venomous.

Blanc is accidentally(?) included in the invitees to Bron’s inner circle; the remainder of whom represent a rogue’s gallery of influencers (Kate Hudson), politicians (Kathryn Hahn) and scientists (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who owe some part of their success to Bron’s own influence or intervention. Also among the attendees is Bron’s excised former business partner – and evident brains of the operation – Andi (Janelle Monáe); a resentful figure whose presence applies a special tension to the seemingly casual gathering.

As previously, the mystery is only part of the fun and, as if to underscore this, Johnson operates at a mode as languid as Blanc himself. It’s well over an hour before the first onscreen body hits the floor. Along the way we’re invited to scrutinise Bron and his guests as Blanc does. To play our guessing games as to which way this weekend will fall.

Johnson’s focal world-building is very giving, especially whenever it uses Bron as a fulcrum for satire. His ‘glass onion’ is an ornate and self-aggrandising office that sits atop the lavish island compound, while his living room is a veritable gallery of priceless antiquities designed less to be appreciated as to reflect vaingloriously on their collector.

Craig has relaxed most comfortably into the role of Blanc; gilded in notoriety of his own, sharp but also appealingly bumbling. Blanc’s reactions to his surroundings seem impressively, believably off-the-cuff, even as one senses none of this is improv. Craig appears almost effortlessly good. Elsewhere, Hudson rekindles her comic goof while Norton is all-too-believable as a Gen X slacker type who has stumbled and plundered his way into obscene wealth. But of all this outing’s supporting players it is Monáe that shines brightest in a role that initially seems cagey and minimised, but which gives more and more as the tale unfolds. She’s always been a fierce talent, on record or on film. But where Antebellum let her down, Johnson’s knotty screenplay affords her material to match her capabilities.

Said screenplay isn’t foolproof, however. Johnson is wise to delay and marginalise his eventual murder mystery, which isn’t half as clever as he thinks it is. The chronological shuffle of the second half is among the most giving sections of the film, but it also reveals itself as sleight of hand to conceal a relative thinness. It is to his credit that he doesn’t cheat the audience but, thanks to this, keen-eyed armchair detectives will be able to spot the murder as it happens, nullifying the mystery of much that follows. Maybe a call to Gillian Flynn might’ve worked in his favour after all.

But in a scenario this precise, is such a seeming fumble unintentional? By the end one might argue that Johnson is acknowledging and rebuking the post-truthisms of Trump and his cronies. Glass Onion shows you the truth, tells you a lie, then asks you to swallow it as truth. This challenge – and the moral greying that comes with it – is mirrored elsewhere in the story’s unravelling, so much so that nothing seems particularly accidental.

Even if not, Glass Onion plays gangbusters as a Tarantino-esque revenge saga with one toe in fantastical revisionism. On these terms Johnson provides abundant entertainment, and Monáe serves as his to-die-for Lady Vengeance. Throw in a selection of pithy cameos and some meme-ready celebrity shade, and this is a breezy balm of summer silliness to stave off the encroaching cold of winter.

7 of 10

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