Ladies and gentlemen, imagine if you will a billionaire who has the temerity to burn through a fortune in order to stroke his own ego. More incredulous still, imagine if that same billionaire’s ego-boost requires him to surround himself not with friends but folks who hate him and wish him unwell. Even the sycophants, with their smiles plastered bright, barely conceal a grimace of spiteful idolatry and envy.
No, I’m not describing the news reports surrounding Elon Musk’s Twitter quagmire, but the setup for Glass Onion, which as its full title reminds us is also “A Knives Out Mystery.”
Having already played the festival circuit after receiving the greenlight more than a year ago, it’s some kind of serendipity that the movie is only now coming to Netflix. This is not to say writer-director Rian Johnson could predict Musk’s precise folly in decimating a popular social media app in only a handful of months. But like his and Daniel Craig’s delightful sleuthing creation, Benoit Blanc, Johnson is a keen observer of hubris, vanity, and all the other ugly human traits that can make for a toxic personality, yet also a beautiful murder mystery.
The filmmaker of course follows in the footsteps of other giants in the whodunnit subgenre, but what makes Knives Out and Glass Onion such satisfying potboilers is they aspire to more than confound and intrigue with a case of murder and side of red herrings. Those elements are at play too, and on an almost epic scale in the latest release. However, both movies also act as indictments of class and wealth in this country, both in how such statuses are valued and, ultimately, worshiped. Privilege creates mystique, and mystique is just another word for building obfuscating layers that blur the truth—until, to wit John Lennon, you’re looking inside a glass onion.
One difference between Glass Onion and its predecessor though is that even Craig’s reliably “Southern” sleuth is not sure what he’s looking for in this go-round. Perhaps that’s why he is more uneasy in Glass Onion than Knives Out—and also more acutely aware that the game is afoot when he’s invited to a private Greek island owned by the eccentric tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton).
As it turns out, Silicon Valley poster boy Miles hosts bizarre parties for his oldest friends every year, and during the film’s setting at the height of the pandemic, Miles has decided to invite those same pals (who’ve all benefited from his wealth) to his private Greek estate to play a murder mystery game. This also explains the decision to invite the great gentleman of leisure and deduction, Benoit Blanc.
Nonetheless, you don’t need to be the world’s greatest detective to deduce something is off when folks arrive at the yacht headed for Miles’ island. After all, Blanc is the only person who isn’t part of this friend group… though he’s far from the only interloper since even Miles’ former business partner, and now social outcast, Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), is also in surprise attendance. Folks may be there to play murder mystery pantomime, but the more Benoit hears about all parties’ histories with one another and their strained “friendships” with Miles, the more he’s convinced one of them may want Miles dead. And the sun is setting.
In its construct, Glass Onion is a grander affair than Knives Out. The board is still set as a locked room mystery in its essence, with seven suspects, however there is a scope that maximizes the formula. Set on an entire villa in the sun-kissed Aegean, and told across an expansive 140 minutes, Glass Onion is happy to take its time. Instead of relying on a barrage of contradictory flashbacks and anecdotes, audiences and Benoit Blanc get to observe the suspects in real time. We also have a front row seat to study the delusional conceit of Miles Bron, who invites a collection of supplicants who each have reason to wish him dead to his home, and then is surprised when Blanc points out it’s not a good idea to have them also fantasize about his murder. Whoops.
As the collection of suspects, all the performers swing big, drawing characters who are arguably more outlandish and cartoony than the Thrombey family in Knives Out. Yet they’re also somewhat excused for their gaucheness: It’s new money, and all that. Audiences will likely be eager to enjoy Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista, who arrive as the most absurd characters, Birdie Jay and Duke Cody, respectively. One is a disgraced fashion guru who’s settled into the infamy of social media celebrity due to posting whatever comes into her head, and the other is a Twitch influencer who knows exactly what he’s doing when hawking “boner pills” to video gamers alongside his much younger girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline).
But there’s also Kathryn Hahn as a newly minted governor-elect, Leslie Odom Jr. as Miles’ put-upon second in command, and finally Monáe’s mysterious Andi. Just as Knives Out made Ana de Armas something of a household name, we imagine Glass Onion will bring Monáe’s talent to a much wider audience. Her decision to come back and face all these people who betrayed her is the real mystery of the movie, at least until the Grim Reaper visits the kooky clan. And it’s her righteous fury with the group that most captures Blanc’s attention.
Given the film’s lengthier setup, Glass Onion is able to better sketch its suspects and players than Knives Out. However, it is that slightly indulgent streak by Johnson that makes his first mystery movie the more enticing. Whereas Knives Out taunts by making you think it revealed the killer in the first act, Glass Onion teases in a more restless way, waiting just as long for a body to hit the floor.
Still, each element contributes to the larger satire Johnson is building. Craig is once again so jovial that the actor’s glee is infectious. And this time, the character is himself a mystery, and not just because his accent seems to defy any actual cadence of the Deep South. Here is a detective who loves unmasking the murders and machinations of the elite, but who also visibly loathes their company. So his eagerness to party with a billionaire in Glass Onion is initially surprising… and compelling. Only after Glass Onion’s thoroughly knotty and unpredictable tangles have been straightened does it then become clear that perhaps it is not the truth of foul deeds that Benoit seeks at all; rather he’s the child picking at a house of cards, just eager to see what kind of mess he can make.
The one Blanc and Johnson create in Glass Onion is a fine shamble, indeed. It also suggests we are only part way through the character and artists’ larger work. If that’s true, I for one cannot wait for them to complete the triptych.
Glass Onion is streaming on Netflix now.