We’re living in a time where everyone seems determined to eat the rich — and, barring that, at least knock them down a peg or two. It’s a powerful sentiment: even when made in jest, it lights a fire under the artists desperate to earn some immunity in the impending class war. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out was one of the first farces to emerge from the shadow of the guillotine. The director’s sharp, “subversive” eye offered a fresh look at the murder mystery, commenting deftly on the many microcosms of the rich, and successfully drawing attention from his emotionally-fraught Star Wars sequel, The Last Jedi, in one strategic move. The “us versus them” of it all worked pretty damn well the first time around — but could Johnson do it again, especially after spending something like a decade carving out the doughnut-within-a-doughnut conspiracy of the first?
The very existence of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery answers that rhetorical with a resounding “hell yeah.” Johnson’s second effort is, in every way, a narrative complement to Knives Out. Where the latter was a sweater-clad mood piece that only briefly flirted with the absurd, Glass Onion is a glossy dive into the deep end. This time, Daniel Craig’s debonair detective is headed to a remote Greek isle — and the subjects at the center of this new mystery are appropriately glitzed-up as well. Glass Onion introduces us to a brand new, tight-knit crop of suspects and victims — each of them wealthy in a way that feels like a snarky (if not a little toothless) nod to our current gig-influenced dystopia.
If Knives Out was a thorough skewering of the Republican dynasty types that at least one of your friends is related to, Glass Onion is the other side of that coin, taking aim at a gaggle of equally problematic “creatives.” Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is a lizard-brained tech billionaire who dreams of being mentioned in the same breath as the Mona Lisa one day. Like so many of his ilk, he’s become something of a golden calf — and his closest friends, his “brilliant disruptors,” are all latched onto his wealth one way or another. There’s Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), a famous-for-being-famous type, and her complicit assistant Peg (an underutilized Jessica Henwick). Then there’s Claire (Kathryn Hahn), a perpetually flustered politician, science savant Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr), and men’s rights streaming duo Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). They’ve all descended on the Glass Onion — that is, the name of Bron’s estate — for their benefactor’s birthday, and the elaborate murder mystery party he’s planned to the letter.
Of course, Bron’s intricately-crafted game is not the only one afoot, not with Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe), Bron’s scorned ex-business partner, in the mix. Her arrival at the Glass Onion is a notable disruption unto itself: the last time she saw Bron, he’d ousted Andi from their company, Alpha, and left her with absolutely nothing. And then there’s Benoit Blanc (Craig, naturally), whose invitation is its own mystery. He wasn’t summoned by Bron, which means that his presence is the work of another entirely — someone planning to turn Bron’s hypothetical murder mystery into something much more literal. Blanc understands quickly that no one in Bron’s orbit is safe — but when everyone suffers from varying degrees of hypocrisy, nothing is as transparent as it ought to be.
There’s obviously not much that can be said about the story without betraying the structural integrity of it, and of Johnson's many twists and turns. Fortunately, Glass Onion is less about the story (fantastical and layered as it is) and more about the commentary it supports. Through Bron, through his debauched inner circle of so-called self-made freelancers, Johnson aims to skewer another very-niche demographic of rich. We are meant to watch them make fools of themselves, to point and make comparisons to the public figures that we know behave in a similar fashion. Glass Onion is satisfying because they can be held accountable in ways that their real-life counterparts are not. We have a front-row seat not just to a cathartic murder mystery, but to a satire that effectively kills with kindness, too — and that has as much to do with Johnson’s dextrous script as it does with the detective at the center of his web.
It’s hard to find a role that Daniel Craig does not make an absolute meal of, but Benoit Blanc is a notable high for the actor. So much ink has been spilled about just how much fun Craig seems to be having; how much scenery he seems to be chewing; how perfectly suited he is to the role. He’s as much a joy to watch in Glass Onion as he was in its predecessor, and it’s a delight to discover new shades of the character in this new adventure. If Craig and Johnson really do intend to keep making these funny little films, the promise of more Blanc for your buck is sure to be a venerable selling point.
Craig also finds another perfect deputy in Janelle Monáe. Her role in the film is one of unsung complexity, but she manages to deliver weighty pathos, steely capability, and a fair amount of humor throughout. She is, unmistakably, the heart of the film — and it’s incredible to see her meet every expectation in such a demanding role.
The one place that Glass Onion slips is in the task of introducing the rest of its ensemble. Where Knives Out had the benefit of a tight-knit, toxic familial dynamic to use as a shorthand, Glass Onion must introduce an eclectic new crop of players with very little in common (at least on the surface). Johnson has to work overtime to spin this new yarn in a way that doesn’t feel too expository — and admittedly, the COVID conceit does wonders in establishing who these people are and why they’re so insufferable. Still, very few of the Disruptors are fleshed out beyond the vague caricature. Quite a few, especially the straight man Toussaint or the put-upon Claire, slip through the cracks when things veer into a campier, more cartoonish lane. Others though, like Hudson’s vacuous Birdie or Bautista’s surprisingly tender Duke, fortunately do a lot with what little substance they’re given.
Perhaps that’s the point of Johnson’s scant character work: not just to give his actors room to play, but to reinforce the message of the film, and of its namesake. A glass onion presents the illusion of layers; of substance — but one hard glance will betray its complexity (or lack thereof). Perhaps Johnson doesn’t bother with crafting a center for these characters, because we don’t expect these characters to have any. As paladins for the hornet’s nest of issues that arose during lockdown, it’s easy to understand who they are, or at least how Johnson perceives them. It serves as its own shorthand, particularly for those who are used to making snap judgements about any close-fisted public figure.
Glass Onion is a love letter to the chronically online, a game of Where’s Waldo for those who’ve been taught to think through the lens of social media. Of course, Bron and his disruptors are meant to represent the worst kind of person, but it’s hard to shake the air of self-righteousness in Johnson’s cleverly-placed jabs. Sure, we can nod along with the vacant condemnations funneled through Craig’s Southern gentleman, condemnations that are pointed enough to merit cheers and knowing winks — but beyond that, does Glass Onion make any real statement? What happens when you look too hard or too close? When you stare into the center of Johnson’s mystery, is there anything of substance staring back?
Not unlike the Mona Lisa, the answer is at once a little simple and a little complex — and maybe it’s all in the eye of the beholder anyway. Perhaps the point of these films is just to have fun, to let Johnson and his muse guide you through a whimsical exercise in privilege and reparations. As two white men with a palpable privilege of their own, they may not be the most qualified — and it might explain Johnson’s consistent use of working class women of color in his central conflicts. But there is so much crammed into every frame of this film, so much to entice and distract, that you can still walk away feeling like you’ve participated in a real discussion.
All in all, you can’t really fault Johnson for pulling his bigger punches. Glass Onion is still a gorgeous, giddy ride at the end of the day, packed with as many enticing visuals as it is with a genuinely satisfying mystery.