Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – movie review

The success of the original Knives Out took many by surprise. On the surface a twisty “drawing room” mystery (though in reality much more), the film was a runaway success, prompting Netflix to sign director Rian Johnson up to at least two more films featuring the enigmatic detective Benoit Blanc. Now the first of them is here, in the shape of Glass Onion.

This installment follows the pattern of the first reasonably closely. Again, we have an Agatha Christie-style closed room, a colourful cavalcade of suspects and a baffling murder – or is it murders? The differences are largely around the characters. Instead of an old-money family as in Knives Out, Glass Onion features an array of new-money types – tech moguls, influencers, upstart politicians and fashion entrepreneurs. But it’s not giving anything away to say no one is exactly who they seem to be.

The film opens with four apparently unconnected people receiving a mysterious puzzle box with a tag reading: “From Miles”. They are “soccer mom” turned Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn); muscle bro Duke Cody (Dave Bautista); scientist Lionel Toussant (Leslie Odom Jr); and fashionista Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson). Soon, they’re all on the phone to each other trying to work it out, so we know there’s some kind of connection between them. After cracking the box, they discover an invitation from their mutual friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton) to spend a weekend playing a “murder game” on his private Greek island. The four friends – dubbed the Disruptors – fly off to Greece, with some extras. Duke has brought along his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), while assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) accompanies Birdie (to cater to her many whims). But two unexpected arrivals also appear – Blanc (Daniel Craig) and Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe).

Seems they both also received an invitation. Blanc’s presence is explicable – it’s a murder game after all, so who better to add an air of authenticity than the world’s greatest detective? But Andi is another story altogether. Seems Miles and Andi founded a tech company together back in the day – the same company that’s made Miles incredibly rich. But Miles used some legal manoeuvering to oust Andi before the really blew up. So while she got one of Miles’ boxes, no one really expected her to appear. Will her presence upset Miles’ carefully constructed plan for the weekend? And is the murder game about to turn shockingly real?

Johnson (who also wrote the screenplay) sets the film in May 2020. In case you’ve blocked it out, that was just after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike others though, he doesn’t shy away from showing its effects, although that’s ditched (via some movie hocus-pocus) once the characters board the ferry. Many of the characters bear striking resemblances to real people. It’s not a huge leap to see Miles as an Elon Musk analogue, and Duke as a less successful Joe Rogan type. Andi seems to have a lot in common with Eduardo Savarin; while Birdie shares many traits with Kate Hudson, the actor playing her. Where knives were a motif threaded through Knives Out, glass serves a similar role here. At times the metaphor is a bit too obvious, but mostly it’s more subtle.

One thing that clearly comes through though is how much fun everyone seems to be having. Even in the film’s darker moments, the material maintains a lighter edge. Several quirky cameos, including from no less than Stephen Sondheim, Ethan Hawke, Yo-yo Ma, Natasha Lyonne and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (among others) deepen the sense of fun. As for the mystery, well, the title gives a clue. Johnson builds layers into the plot; so many that it does at least two 180 degree pivots. The resolution of the mystery might not come as a great surprise (I mean, everyone has a 1 in 8 chance of just guessing the murderer); but how Johnson gets to the resolution is more to the point.

The cast also seem to be having a great time, particularly Edward Norton (The French Dispatch) who chews it up as the vainglorious Miles. Kate Hudson (Music) finds some nuance in the wilfully ignorant (or just plain stupid?) Birdie; while Dave Bautista (Thor: Love and Thunder) is scarily convincing as the equally stupid Duke. In the straighter roles, Kathryn Hahn (WandaVision), Leslie Odom Jr (The Many Saints of Newark), Madelyn Cline (Stranger Things) and Jessica Henwick (The Gray Man) all add to the mix, even if they all tend to be rather sidelined in the third act. Daniel Craig (the James Bond films) holds it all together as the brilliant Blanc, although the script strips the character of some of the down-home charm displayed in Knives Out. But the lynchpin of the film is Janelle Monáe (Homecoming) as the enigmatic Andi.

Much like the original Knives Out, Glass Onion is a film that bears multiple watchings. And now it’s on streaming (following a brief cinema release in November), you can indulge in it – or even just pick up clues you might have missed the first time around. This twisty romp of a thriller that pulls surprise after surprise. While it might not quite reach the lofty heights of the original, it definitely has me keen to see the next instalment.

David Edwards

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