As part of our coverage of the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Rian Johnson’s murder mystery sequel, ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
Southern-fried celebrity sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has spent much of the pandemic languishing in his bathtub. With no twisty, murderous capers to crack, the downcast detective is at a loss for how to occupy his ever-whirring mind.
Then, a case falls into his lap. Or rather, a puzzle box: a garishly intricate invitation to an exclusive murder mystery-themed island getaway hosted by none other than the eccentric entrepreneur Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Along for the ride are Bron’s intimate gang of shit-disturbers: an ever-canceled fashionista (Kate Hudson) and her norm-core assistant (Jessica Henwick); an influencer who peddles in toxic masculinity (Dave Bautista) and his complicit girlfriend, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline); a hypocritical leftist senator (Kathryn Hahn), and a scientist willing to wave his morals for grant money (Leslie Odom Jr.).
Dressed like the secret fourth dad from Mama Mia!, Blanc feels like an outsider amongst these new money jack-offs (though the presence of Bron’s steely former business partner, Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), certainly raises eyebrows). But as tensions flair and we discover that each of these people would benefit greatly from Bron’s death, it becomes increasingly clear that Blanc’s presence at the party is no accident.
In many ways, Glass Onion improves upon its predecessor. Where the first film’s unwieldy baseball team of A-Listers made keeping track of all the motives and alibis more confusing than challenging, it’s a relief that Glass Onion’s roster can comfortably fit in a single frame. As with the reduced cast, the decision to primarily set the proceedings on an isolated private island (flashbacks aside) does double duty of keeping things focused while invoking the genre’s long history of confining suspects and sleuths alike at sea. Is Glass Onion in the same league as And Then There Were None or The Last of Shiela? Of course not. But I don’t think it’s trying to be (more on that later).
Inarguably, Glass Onion is Monáe’s film for reasons that I can’t say here without provoking the comically large shepherd’s crook lurking just off-stage. Bautista’s Duke — a testosterone supplement-slinging Twitch streamer — is another standout. And for his part, Craig’s Foghorn Leghorn impression would be grating if writer-director Rian Johnson didn’t wisely allocate him to the sidelines to lounge about in linen and guffaw every now and then. Everyone is clearly having a grand ole’ sunkissed time, and the vibe is catchy.
While Glass Onion boasts a contagiously playful structure, the film does suffer from the self-satisfied energy that tinged the series’ first entry. As with the original Knives Out, Johnson still hasn’t quite figured out how to weave his unapologetic political theses into a comedic fabric without conjuring Jeb Bush’s “please clap” energy. (There is literally a moment early in the film where Craig pauses for the audience to applaud after asserting a fortune cookie-like statement that speaking thoughtlessly is bad, actually).
Glass Onion’s thematic grandstanding is part of a bigger issue of self-indulgence. There are gratuitous cameos in this film that serve absolutely no narrative purpose other than to delight people who enjoy seeing people they recognize on-screen, however briefly. There are also a number of namedrops that (I suppose) speak to the murder suspects’ showy douchebaggery but ultimately come across as hollow pop culture gestures that will age like sour cream in a sauna. (Speaking of saunas, the pandemic jokes feel especially sweaty and an extension of the fleeting “oh hey, I know that!” thrill of celebrity walk-ons).
During the Q&A that followed my screening, Johnson mentioned that, as a viewer, he prefers to approach murder mysteries as roller coasters rather than puzzles. And truth be told, if you come at Glass Onion with your cork board and red string at the ready, you’re going to have a bad time … namely because if you know what to look for, the mystery solves itself before the first body drops. This film is actively counting on you throwing your hands up in the air and enjoying the ride for what it is rather than, you know, paying close attention.
So if you’re coming into Glass Onion with the hope of being genuinely challenged by an intricate mystery, you need to bark up another tree. This film is absolutely not trying to reinvent the wheel. And it even arguably even punishes those who have seen and enjoyed enough murder mysteries to be watchful for early act sleight of hand.
As a result, when the film finally arrives at its wildly self-satisfied conclusion, its smugness feels both unearned and a bit insulting. Without giving anything away, the film ends with the butt-covering move that, much like the “disruptors” in Blanc’s midst, all of this murderous plotting was actually way dumber than anyone should give it credit for. By lampshading the murder plot’s basicness as being dumb on purpose, Johnson is allowed to have it both ways. And that the film admonishes us for having the gall to take these people seriously feels both insulting and like a weird move to make in a post-Trump world.
As I said, I enjoyed Glass Onion more than the original Knives Out. And perhaps I will enjoy Johnson’s third installment even more. In the end: Johnson is right. The film is amusing when you approach it passively, like a rollercoaster. But you can only ride a rollercoaster so many times. And I’m starting to wonder when audiences will want something more from their modern murder mysteries.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery will play in select theaters in November 2022 before hitting Netflix on December 23rd. You can check out the trailer here.