In a multimedia entertainment landscape where every franchise entry is fixated to the point of distraction on teeing up the next half-dozen feature films and streaming series, there’s something charmingly old school about the figure of the consulting detective. When Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, or Jessica Fletcher turns up at the scene of a cooling corpse, the audience’s delight is not contingent on a colliding multiverse of coming-soon content teases and nerd-lore Easter eggs. Rather, it stems from the simple satisfaction of watching a clever, charismatic sleuth tackle yet another baffling crime amid a fresh cohort of shifty suspects. The standalone nature of the whodunit is integral to its charms, second only to the dependable brilliance of the detective character.
Kudos to writer-director Rian Johnson, then, for recognizing these truisms when he opted to turn his smash-hit 2019 mystery, Knives Out, into a bona fide franchise. In the clunkily titled Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the only returning player – at least in front of the camera – is dapper, loquacious gentleman-detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Set explicitly in mid-2020, the new film finds Blanc chafing under Covid lockdown, as his thirst for a case worthy of his talents remains unsatisfied by the online games he fiddles with from the comfort of his bathtub. (His fellow Zoom-linked players include, inexplicably, Stephen Sondheim, Natasha Lyonne, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a sampling of the sort of left-field cameos sprinkled liberally throughout Glass Onion.)
When a strange puzzle box turns up at Blanc's doorstep, it feels a bit like his prayers to the pulp-fiction gods have been answered This contraption turns out to be a characteristically ostentatious invitation from tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who is hosting an annual weekend get-together on his private island in Greece. The other, more customary recipients of this puzzle include liberal gubernatorial candidate Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn); model, influencer, and fashionista Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson); vaguely alt-right Twitch streamer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista); and Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), the chief engineer at Miles’ globe-straddling company, Alpha.
Then there’s Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe), Miles’ former partner, who is regularly invited to the annual retreat but has understandably been a no-show since she was ousted from Alpha through some shady legal maneuvering. On this particular year, however, the taciturn Andi is mysteriously in attendance. Also along for the ride are Birdie’s long-suffering assistant, Peg (Jessica Henwick), and Duke’s latest arm candy, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). The true interloper, however, is Blanc, who seems to have been invited by mistake to this gathering that is normally an intimate reunion between friends.
It's a lucky mistake as far as the voluble, self-satisfied Miles is concerned, as his plan for the weekend is to stage a murder-mystery game wherein his guests will solve the riddle of his untimely “death.” And who better to have on hand for such an endeavor than the World’s Greatest Detective? Blanc, however, seems less interested in Miles’ parlor amusements than in the delights of the island compound itself. The titular Glass Onion – so-named for the complex’s crystalline onion dome – is an art-deco-meets-modernist wonder, outfitted with all the automated luxuries that a truly obscene fortune can afford. Truthfully, Miles’ veneer of regular-guy affability conceals a narcissist who is obsessed with faux-revolutionary “disruption” and his own over-inflated legacy. When he reveals that he has the literal Mona Lisa on loan from the Louvre, it’s less about an old-school display of wealth per se than about elevating his achievements to the same level as the most famous painting in the world.
Unsurprisingly, the sun-drenched pleasures of Miles’ party-slash-ego-trip are abruptly cut short by a very real murder. It’s fortunate that Benoit Blanc just happens to be on hand to take the case – although, just as unsurprisingly, it turns out that Blanc’s presence is hardly a coincidence. Consistent with Knives Out, Johnson’s latest is quite the intricate gewgaw, structurally speaking. Roughly an hour into its running time, just as the plot has reached a dramatic turning point, the film screeches to halt. It then backtracks to the beginning and presents a new perspective on the events thus far, radically realigning the audience’s understanding of the game that is afoot. With one conspicuous exception, Johnson plays fair here: Everything the viewer has seen up to this point has been real, although the context has been hidden and the complete picture often obfuscated through sly editing.
Glass Onion is a bigger, gaudier, twistier affair than its predecessor. Gone is the cozy genre familiarity of a gothic mansion and a contested will, which are here replaced with a more convoluted tale of betrayal, resentment, and corporate skullduggery. (The hideous, naked greed evinced by the suspects remains the same, of course.) Although the plot swerves are, on balance, more ludicrous and rewarding than those in Knives Out, the new film also has a frustrating tendency to over-explain itself. As a result, the 139-minute running time feels somewhat bloated, burdened by audience hand-holding that isn’t remotely necessary, given the plot points in question.
Aside from Benoit Blanc himself, the other returning component from Johnson’ prior feature is its gleeful eat-the-rich attitude, which is here cranked up to truly caustic levels. Although the Thrombey clan were hardly old money – indeed, Knives Out made a joke of the “ancestral Thrombey manor” actually being a 1980s rehab – their entitled backstabbing over their patriarch’s estate carried the moldering whiff of inherited wealth. In contrast, Glass Onion functions as a takedown of the nouveau riche, specifically the billionaire class who regard their wealth as a meritocratic signifier of their irrefutable genius. It’s not incidental that Johnson’s screenplay never specifies exactly what Miles’ company makes or does. Whatever it is, it cannot possibly justify the indecent excess on display, such as the mogul’s custom baby-blue Porsche convertible, enshrined like a pristine jewel on an island with no roads.
Much as Ana de Armas’ nurse functioned as the heart and soul of Knives Out, Monáe’s performance as Alpha’s exiled co-founder provides the new film with a welcome dose of human warmth amid all the vacuous self-absorption and mind-boggling decadence. Andi initially comes off as something of a quietly furious killjoy, but as the exact dimensions of her gambit become apparent, Monáe’s portrayal softens dramatically. The enthusiastic Craig might be the molasses-drizzled marquee attraction, but Monáe is the earnest MVP in a cast that generally goes in a more ridiculous, cartoonish direction. (Of the rest, Norton and Hudson are the standouts, as they appear to be having a grand time leaning into their characters’ worst traits.)
Not that Miles and his guests are undeserving of mockery. Glass Onion eventually attempts to square the circle of its socially outlandish premise: How exactly did this motley collection of miserable assholes with nothing in common begin (let alone maintain) their decade-long “friendship”? Ultimately, however, the film is less concerned with situational realism than with dumping fish into barrels and shooting them to bits. In lesser hands, this might have devolved into ungainly, straw-man satire, but Johnson’s writing is so acidly charming, and (mostly) delivered at such a gratifying rat-a-tat tempo thanks to longtime editor Bob Ducsay, the broad absurdity of it all hardly seems to matter. Like all good whodunits, Glass Onion is held afloat by the clockwork precision of its assembly, and by the stylish flourish of its myriad reveals and payoffs. Johnson has constructed a mystery here that is so densely cluttered with loaded Chekhov’s guns that one assumes some of them must be red herrings. When they all go off in a hail of metaphorical bullets during the film’s explosively cathartic climax, the result is mordantly delightful and wickedly entertaining.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery opens theatrically on Nov. 23 for a limited one-week run. It will premiere on Netflix on Dec 23.