Well, this is a fucker. A gleeful puzzle whose joys come from intricate and pervasive surprises. A review of this movie, like any good mystery, has to duck and weave around the truth without bringing it into plain view. In short, it’s a dream for a slightly burned out media critic with a deep love for detective fiction.
Glass Onion comfortably settles into the “continuation-but-not-a-sequel” mode of detective series by dint of being broadly incomparable to Knives Out. It deploys some of the same structural tricks — the “here’s what you saw, and now here’s the other side of it” technique that defines Knives Out is on full display. But Glass Onion takes it much further, adopting an almost movie-within-a-movie approach, showing the bulk of the action, cutting away for a tremendously long time, and letting the story unfold in completely different directions.
Remarkably, it navigates between the plot threads without losing momentum. Like Knives Out, Glass Onion plays out as half-mystery/half-thriller, using a Columbo-style opening act to establish some of the murders and then delving into Benoit Blanc’s investigation. The film weaves deftly its whodunnit and suspense plots, using the question “but how did we get here?” to generate dramatic tension. Janelle Monáe’s character (an instance of Rian Johnson understanding perfectly how to use a character) provides much of the suspense, indulging the pleasures of a flawed enigmatic character and asking “but how does this set of actions gel with what we know here?”
The title Glass Onion is of course ostentatiously fitting here. By naming itself after John Lennon’s masterpiece of obscurantist trolling, the movie loudly telegraphs its own structural complexity, but also gives itself a vibrant central image. The Glass Onion of Edward Norton’s tech billionaire Miles Bron (who, to the movie’s credit, never gets depicted as not a vicious asshole) is a striking emblem at the heart of the film: a location, an in-joke, and a metaphor all at once. It’s extremely on the nose, and absolutely perfect.
The use of a Beatles song from the sprawling, willfully messy White Album is equally fitting. Knives Out was Seventies to its core, with half of its central cast named after Boomer rock stars (Joni? Richard? Linda?), and a cinematographic style closer to Murder by Death or Clue than a late 2010s thriller. But while Knives Out’s brown Massachusetts palette went with an earthier soundtrack, Glass Onion is more ostentatious and glam, befitting its globe-trotting Aegean locale — two songs from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars pop up here. The entire budget is on the screen, with a truly spectacular roster of needle drops, SFX work, and cameos (Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim shook me up). Glass Onion is directed by a post-Last Jedi Rian Johnson, one who can make whatever he wants without deferring to a corporate IP. And it’s utterly refreshing.
Yet the spectacle is belied by how quirky and strange the whole movie is. Mystery fans will recognize the obvious hat tips to The Last of Sheila — a bizarre Seventies mystery film where an eccentric rich man invites and blackmails a cadre of celebrities to his yacht in the Mediterranean to have them play a series of murder games. Also it’s written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins (yes, THAT Anthony Perkins). This is a fundamentally bizarre movie to nod to in a $40 million blockbuster. And yet Johnson doesn’t coast off obscure references or even rip off The Last of Sheila — Glass Onion is completely watchable even if you haven’t seen any weird Seventies whodunnit movies. It engages with the genre, embracing it, but it firmly does its own thing.
This is particularly on display with Benoit Blanc. Daniel Craig’s debonair gay Southern detective is already one of the great sleuths in mystery fiction, and probably the first truly great one since, dunno, Prime Suspect or Cracker. But like Glass Onion, he defies strict genre boundaries. Whereas Poirot or Jessica Fletcher are largely observers — a role Blanc retains in Knives Out — Blanc in Glass Onion is an agent in the plot, driving a significant portion of the action that makes the viewer go “huh, that’s not supposed to happen.”
So the denouement — which, like Knives Out, doesn’t quite hit traditional whodunnit reveal territory — is more about character than plot payoff. Doubtless there are complaints about this — not entirely groundless, I’m sure — but the dedicated time and space to character fits the 21st century blockbuster. A more Brechtian sleuth, while functional in a Christie novel, would be fundamentally at odds with the blockbuster format.
And the grounded, tender Blanc is some of the most important ground whodunnits have broken in decades. Glass Onion gives this silly, regressive genre that I adore with all my heart new life. In some ways it outdoes Knives Out in that regard, although I don’t know if I necessarily like it more. Rian Johnson’s marriage of genre affection and genuinely innovative filmmaking is as strong as ever. I can’t wait for another one of these clever, goofy movies.
Now send Benoit Blanc to the South to solve murders in a small Appalachian town.