Upon release in 2019 the greatest asset Rain Johnson’s Knives Out had was surprise. Sure, it had a stellar cast, but at the time no one knew what to expect from a murder mystery written and directed by someone whom many people had (and still do) derided (wrongly) for his entry in the Star Wars franchise. No one knew to expect a tightly written mystery, precise direction, interesting characters, delightful leads, and excellent performances, elements that while unremarkable individually disampulate into a single great cinematic work. Though the film was not rewarded during award season (as predicted in my review), it was roundly embraced by audiences that still appreciate solid, original filmmaking. It was also rewarded by Netflix with 469 million dollars to the film’s writer/director Rian Johnson for the rights to distribute two standalone sequels. A big part of any mystery is the sense of surprise, and with the reception of the first film and the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into an untested franchise, it’s impossible to not come into Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery without some degree of expectation. Fortunately, where the Knives Out property itself is now known, Rian Johnson proves more than capable of making Benoit Blanc’s second mystery equally as surprising as the first. Even in some unexpected ways.
Where the first film opened with its mystery before then delving into its characters, Glass Onion takes the antipathetic approach in opening on extended character introductions long before even hinting at its central intrigue. In fact, the film smartly keeps its only known quantity, Daniel Craig as “the world’s greatest detective,” among the last shown, finally revealed in a surprising circumstance with wonderfully surprising cameos. Once again, Johnson crafts characters simultaneously suited for and contrasting with their performers, illustrated by former it-girl actress turned entrepreneur Kate Hudson playing washed-up model turned sweatpants designer Birdie Jay and former professional wrestler and noted supporter of women’s rights Dave Bautista playing gun-toting men’s rights activist Duke Cody. The precision and energy with which Glass Onion introduces these characters – the politician, the scientist, the put-upon assistant, the outsider – makes its first hour crackle even before our final character, the billionaire genius, introduces us to the film’s mystery. While the film inevitably settles into a more familiar rhythm, complete with requisite genre tropes and missteps, the first hour provides more than enough momentum to carry through the spiraling and convoluted second half.
Just as the best moments of Knives Out came in simply watching the cadre of horrible people interacting with and around each other, Glass Onion is at its most amusing when letting the talented cast interact, bicker, and bounce about. While no one quite matches smarmy Chris Evans, relishing his chance to be an awful person, or Ana de Armas’s doe-eyed innocent charm, the new cast solidifies the franchise as a showcase for outstanding supporting performances. Short of recasting the entire Knives Out ensemble in entirely new characters – an idea I’d heard floating around and would have been delighted to see, along with Daniel Craig’s thought of inexplicitly changing Blanc’s accent with every film – a cast that includes Edward Norton, Janelle Monae, Kathryn Hahn, Jessica Henwick, Leslie Odom Jr., Hudson, and Bautista is a pretty decent substitute. Although his star has diminished somewhat over the last few years, Norton remains an amazing talent, easing into the role of eccentric billionaire Miles Bron so naturally that his behavior never changes even as our understanding of him does. I once theorized that only wealthy people get to be “eccentric.” Poor people are just weird. Bron, as demonstrated in several very funny instances, certainly lives up to that, and more. Monae, meanwhile, continues to grow her impressive acting resume with a performance that believably flips vulnerability for strength and vice verse. Horrible as their characters are, the aforementioned Hudson and Bautista are most likely to emerge as audience favorites because of how horrible they are. As a whole the cast is so solid that the only trouble is the same as it was with Knives Out, there just isn’t time for every performer to shine, with Leslie Odom Jr. and the always underutilized Jessica Henwick receiving the least development. While no one has as much fun on-screen as Evans did in the previous film, it is obvious everyone is having fun off screen.
In many ways, Glass Onion feels like a victory lap for Johnson and Craig. Having made a rumored 100 million dollars each off the Netflix deal, the two collaborators clearly love working on this franchise together, with Craig amping up the “Southern hokum” and Johnson crafting a mystery that’s bigger, louder, more ambitious, more opulent, and much more satirical than the previous film. Freed from the constraints of theater audiences, Johnson uses his characters to ridicule recent cultural phenomena including accidentally racist celebrities, billionaire worship, and the previously mentioned oppressed heterosexual males. While exploring the strength of Johnson’s satire would spoil the film, we know exactly who Duke Cody, for example, is the moment he appears on screen announcing, “I do not hate boobs,” and decrying the “breastification of America.” That the character is played by Dave Bautista (as seen here) makes the satire all the more delicious, and his very introduction establishes Duke as a figure who exemplifies both what those who ascribe to his ethos think they are (macho, self-made alphas with hot girlfriends) and what they really are (insecure, dependent beta cucks). Yet Glass Onion‘s best, most prescient, and likely most talked about ridicule comes much later, when the audience finds out the depth of its central mystery. Considering the response much of the audience had to The Last Jedi, with the most vociferous criticism coming from people likely to subscribe to Duke’s YouTube channel, it’s easy to imagine Johnson using the goodwill of Knives Out and freedom afforded by Netflix to confidently skewer his detractors. After all, they’ve already done all the damage they can, and he has a rumored 100 million dollars.
Being on Netflix also means it’s easier for viewers, both critical and not, to scrutinize the film. A big part of any mystery is how well the plot hangs together. Johnson knows that viewers can and will backtrack in search of inconsistencies and plot holes (and I know this because I did it). Fortunately, barring a couple of scenes which don’t exactly sync up as characters don’t appear where they were supposed to be, and some questions over basic motivations, the film holds up very well. In fact, as with any good mystery, a second viewing only enhances the experience. The unfortunate part however is that the initial viewing isn’t as inscruptuous as its script with the second half lacking the feverish energy of the first. The inevitable drop is only compounded when the mystery begins to unravel as layers pile on layers pile on layers. Where Knives Out had the donut within a donut, Glass Onion has… well, as Benoit Blanc himself notes, the glass onion, where peeling more layers doesn’t so much make things clear as make it less enjoyable to continue peeling. Once the film introduces flashbacks within flashbacks then what was supposed to be transparent becomes not only cloudy but unamusing. As much as the second hour is required to unravel the first hour, and a second viewing required to appreciate the revelations of that second hour, there isn’t nearly as much thrill in watching the entire movie a second time once the only surprise left is how oddly unsatisfying the climax is despite its grandiosical staging. Still, the fact that the film holds up to one and a half viewings (within 24 hours) is definitely enough to make it worth seeing the first time. A second viewing is further required by the film’s best satire only becoming clear towards the end. So as much as I want to spend five hundred words analyzing the film’s intentions, I can’t! And it’s killing me!
With a third film already slated, Knives Out and Glass Onion crystallize what to expect from a Knives Out Mystery: Benoit Blanc’s amazing detective skills and amusing accent, ensemble casts of talented supporting actors (if sometimes underused), elaborate sets beautifully filmed, and mysteries so thoughtfully constructed that even the malapropisms are done with intention. In interviews, Daniel Craig has said that if the audience responds well he and Johnson would gladly make more Knives Out mysteries so long as the films are challenging, fun, and neither of them “feel bored.” For now there are 100 million reasons to continue. Beyond that, if every three years we get a new collection of lesser appreciated actors playing horrible people as Craig drawls it up till the cows comes home, then I reckon both the casts and the audience would be happy as a dead pig in the sunshine. A big strength of any mystery is in how enjoyable it remains when no surprise is left. Glass Onion hints that the Knives Out franchise may yet hold up even after know what to expect.