There are, not surprisingly, a number of similarities between Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion and its predecessor, the engrossing and often hilarious Knives Out (2019). Both are essentially social satires masquerading as murder-mysteries. Both are set in and around distinctive, large houses and feature a group of clashing characters. And, of course, we have the presence of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the Southern-drawling gentleman sleuth who is brought into the proceedings via mysterious circumstances. Of course, much is different, as well. Rather than an isolated country manor, Glass Onion’s whodunit shenanigans unfold in and around a massive, glassy modernist mega-mansion on a private island off the coast of Greece. The nattering characters are no longer squabbling members of an extended family, but rather a disparate group of old friends who have come together to spend a weekend in the sun and play a mystery game.
And, as he did in Knives Out, Johnson has plenty of skewering to do of the wealthy, the politically shallow, and the morally dubious. His barbs cut right and left, even as his targets—a misogynistic vlogger who always carries a gun, a dim-witted influencer who is constantly making “accidental” racist comments, an opportunistic governor—are as broad as the proverbial side of the barn. Yet, they are brought to life with such gusto and panache by Johnson’s game cast that they transcend the very caricatures they clearly are. It is all part of the film’s campier vibe, as Johnson replaces the insular familial privilege at the heart of Knives Out with an even more obnoxious form of privilege whose odiousness is in direct proportion to how much its characters flaunt it in the public sphere.
The person who brings everyone together is Miles Bron (Edward Norton), an Elon Musk-esque billionaire tech genius. The film opens with one of its best sequences, a fast-paced montage in which all the main characters are delivered elaborate puzzle boxes from Miles that they proceed to try to solve, often in concert over the phone, which gives Johnson an excuse to employ split-screen so we can see them together. The four main characters are Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), a blue-state governor angling for a Senate seat; Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), a superficial actress and influencer; Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), a tattooed men’s rights vlogger; and Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), a scientist and researcher who has been working with Miles on a new energy source. A box is also sent to Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), Miles’s ex-girlfriend who had some kind of major falling out with him and the rest of the group; unlike the others, rather than solve the puzzle box, she simply smashes it with a hammer. What they all discover inside is an invitation to Miles’s private island, an invitation that is also extended to Blanc, although we later learn that Miles didn’t send it to him.
Once on the island, Johnson settles into a lengthy period of character development, where we get to see these half-dozen very different personalities at play while also building suspense about who is going to get murdered and when. We learn bits and pieces of information about the characters’ shared past, when they were all college-age friends who hung out together at a bar called the Glass Onion (which Miles has immortalized by building his chic ultra-modern abode with a giant glass onion at the center), although the exact nature of Andi’s disassociation with them remains vague. The actors are clearly having a ball with the material, playing up their characters’ absurd traits, whether that be Duke’s bulging hyper-masculinity, Birdie’s “How could they find that offensive?” obliviousness, or Miles’s smarmy faux-bohemian monied-cool schtick.
Someone does eventually end up dead, and everyone still alive (outside of Blanc) is a suspect. But, then Johnson does something radically unexpected: He stops the film dead in its tracks, rewinds to a point before the film began, and essentially retells everything that has already happened from an alternate perspective that changes one of the characters, explains why Blanc is there, and offers a completely different understanding of what we have already seen transpire. It is a risky gambit since it both halts the film’s initial momentum and asks us to sit through much of what we have already seen again. However, this second part has a momentum all of its own, and while there is some narrative redundancy, almost every previously witnessed action takes on new meaning. It is a curious and intriguing means of revealing plot information that might otherwise be crammed into a bunch of dialogue, and I can’t help but applaud Johnson’s aplomb even if the film as a whole doesn’t work quite as well as Knives Out.
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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