Great, timeless detectives are hard to come by, and many world-renowned authors have tried but failed to achieve Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot-levels of gumshoe immortality. It is too soon to tell whether Rian Johnson’s Benoit Blanc, played with sarcastic aplomb by Daniel Craig in the Knives Out movies, will become an icon among movie detectives or be forgotten in the annals of murder mystery history, for Glass Onion, the second entry in the ongoing franchise, is both too fragile multi-layered to hold up to close scrutiny. Were it not for superb acting by another star-studded cast, and a script that, outside of the mystery plot itself, is quite funny and clever, this Netflix sequel might have shattered Johnson’s hope to create something worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as truly timeless art, such as, say, the Mona Lisa.
Set amid the early days of the COVID pandemic in 2020, Glass Onion finds a group of eclectic and eccentric characters traveling to a remote Greek island, each of them summoned by a large wooden puzzle box created by their egotistical billionaire friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton). The setup of the sequel, as it were, finds Miles explicitly announcing his own “murder,” which his guests must then compete to solve.
Miles’ friends include Birdie J, a former model played to perfection by Kate Hudson; her put-upon assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick); Duke, a politically incorrect, muscle-bound meathead played by Dave Bautista; his gorgeous girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline); Claire, an ambitious and ruthless politician played by Kathryn Hahn; Lionel, a brilliant scientist played by Leslie Odom Jr.; Cassandra, an oddball tech entrepreneur embodied beautifully by Janelle Monae; and, of course, Craig’s too-clever-by-half Benoit Blanc, though whether or not he’s on the official guest list is up for debate. While Craig is once again delicious as the detective, it’s Hudson who steals the show with her comedic timing, while Monae shines in a performance that elicits sympathy.
Like its predecessor, Glass Onion features strong production values, most notably from Costume Designer Jenny Eagan, who dresses the diverse personages with equally divergent and very apropos gowns, and mansion-style production design by Mihailo Mosesku, who is tasked with building the titular structure, which sits as a dome at the center of the Greek island where most of the adventure takes place.
Elsewhere, Nathan Johnson delivers another playful, mysterious, and exciting score, though the success of this film rides on his brother Rian’s screenplay, which sees the writer making certain choices that leave much to discuss. The film is set in the early days of the pandemic, with most people in lockdown and chatting on Zoom, until this band of frenemies reunites by the Aegean. One wonders why Johnson even bothered to introduce the pandemic at all since its consequences are quickly neutralized.
Meanwhile, The persistent allegory to the CEPA, the glass, the layers, the peeling — are also mostly unnecessary. The only thing that the movie itself unravels is a significant chunk of backstory thanks to a non-stop series of unnecessary flashbacks in the second half that show us key moments from several days prior to the big reunion. None of these reveals really add much to the mystery.
As for the murder that drives the plot, it doesn’t occur until an hour or so into the movie, and the only real clue is the manner in which the murder is committed, which is enough — for any amateur mystery lover — to reveal the solution. Gone are the quizzical interrogations that define Poirot, Holmes, and other classic detectives, including Blanc himself in the first Knives Out. Left instead are a bunch of good comedic actors in funny costumes screaming, shouting, and insulting each other. There are numerous shots, references, and close-ups of the Mona Lisa — but really, what are those for? Rian took the “layers” allegory one step too far this time around and his script, unlike the design of an onion, has many pointless strata.
The political commentary, too, adds another unneeded layer of distraction, as the politics of some of the sinister, rich, sniveling murder suspects in the original movie were part of why many found it so amusing, but here, the virtue signaling and politicking are extreme. Whiskey is too grotesque to be believed, as is Duke, and Rian Johnson insists on telegraphing who the real bad guys are and where their redeeming qualities lie by using the political leanings of his expected audience rather than letting a clever mystery do the trick.
Towards the end of the somewhat bloated 140-minute runtime, a frustrated group of characters takes to smashing glass sculptures, throwing things around, and expiating their anger by just breaking… stuff. A snobby critic would say the filmmaker is speaking to the frustrations of his generation. That would be giving the script too much credit. Already at sea with the mystery, Rian clearly did not know how to stick the evidentiary landing, opting instead for chaos, mayhem, and destruction. It evokes a sequence towards the start of Glass Onion in which the elegant, wooden boxes methodically give way to labyrinths, enigmas, and puzzles, only to have an impatient character, one who does not care for solving mysteries, simply take a hammer to it, busting it open without any appreciation for the intricacy that went into its construction. Rian’s own frustration with his story becomes visible in that sequence and the climactic one as well, when there are no more layers left to pull back and the film’s mostly empty core is revealed.
Still, I’d be remiss to tell you this is a rotten film. It is not — it is funny, it boasts a killer cast and features tremendous cameos (courtesy mostly of the conceited Miles, who loves to namedrop his celebrity pals), and its production values are spotless and beyond reproach. Like so many big, studio films these days, there are two layers by which to judge this sequel, and you can love it or hate it depending on whichever layer you believe deserves more weight. As popcorn entertainment, Glass Onion is effective and breathes additional life into the nascent Knives Out franchise, but as a murder mystery, the film is largely a vegetable.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10 and will be released in U.S. theaters in November by Netflix, where the movie will begin streaming in December.