“Glass Onion” is an entertaining and twisty whodunnit that shows writer/director Rian Johnson flexing not only an unparalleled understanding of the genre but a genuine love. At the same time, it manages to surpass its predecessor “Knives Out” in almost every way.
The laughs are louder and linger; a sight gag during an Edward Norton flashback made me chuckle for days. The characters are weirder, creating a cast of potential suspects who are as unlikeable as every celebrity who thought the “Imagine” viral video was a good idea.
“Brick” squeezed “The Maltese Falcon” into the life or death stakes of Southern Californian suburban adolescence. “Looper” took the essence of Cameron’s “Terminator” films and expressed it through the sorrowful certainty of Peter Weir’s “Witness”. The original “Knives Out” was pure Agatha Christie fan fiction – a refreshingly silly, elaborately constructed take on class in Trump’s America. The film – and the line of a movie – ringing at dog whistle frequency through my ears while watching the “Glass Onion” is one from the canonical “The Wizard of Oz”: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”.
An eccentric tech-billionaire, Miles Bron (a delightfully demented and vain Edward Norton), lures his friends to a magnificent island getaway to play a macabre parlour game, discovering his killer. Along for the ride, the world’s greatest detective, Daniel Craig’s silly, satisfying, southern drawling Benoit Blanc.
Is this some elaborate escape room (nee island) game or something more sinister. “Glass Onion” is a tremendous literal and metaphorical title. For one, Bron’s island is adorned with a gigantic glass structure given that nickname. More appropriately and relatable still is that Johnson catches and heightens the tension between old groups of friends. This big neckerchief-wearing exaggeration captures that authentic feeling of cliques within cliques and motivates you to ask if there’s this much discord, why are they here?
If this is Johnson’s “Oz”, then he’s the wizard too. Rather than that “curtain” line – as it did in childhood – ruin the magic of the preceding 90 odd minutes, he’s showing behind the curtain while we’re still in black and white. Such is the calming confidence of Johnson, who may have made better movies (for this critic), but has never been better at making them.
The structure requires laser-guided timing. Unlike the cascading bombshells in “Knives Out” that revealed the particulars of the mystery alongside Blanc’s aptitude – “Glass Onion” has to wrestle with the audience knowing Blanc’s investigative prowess. There’s not a second that the audience underestimates Blanc, so Johnson distracts us with an ensemble of misfits with mounting motivation to take down their reclusive host.
The conflicted and solemn Leslie Odom Jr. plays tired Born lackey Lionel Toussaint, a translator and filter for Bron’s hair-brained schemes. A bedraggled Kathryn Hahn plays politician Claire Debella, whose genuine desire to make a difference is offset by the burden that she’s Born backed into power.
The deceptively deep Dave Bautista plays the gun-toting Duke Cody, a gaming influencer whose ethical compass is guided by clicks. The magnetic Kate Hudson is having a deliriously fun time as Birdie Jay, another model turned entrepreneur constantly being held in check by Jessica Henwick’s assistant Peg. Finally, the statuesque Janelle Monae plays Andi Brand, Bron’s former partner in business who has been unceremoniously booted from the company and denied her share in Bron’s fortune.
Craig is settling in beautifully as Blanc. Johnson and Craig use Blanc’s present state, stuck in COVID pandemic isolation, as a means to reflect on our struggles of self-definition as the world retreated to varying degrees of solitary confinement. “Glass Onion” refreshingly addresses the pandemic, rather than denying it.
Johnson gives us an extended stay traversing Bron’s Bond villain lair and knows when to get grand and when to peak around corners. His confidence translates to directing of actors. When you have the calibre of committed cameo performers, including a cameo from an A+ movie star to administer a COVID vaccine (of sorts) to the inhabitants of his island, you must be doing something right.
The absolute highlights for this critic are Hudson and Bautista. Hudson is a damned hoot in this flick. Showing off her stunning beauty and equally committing to playing a blissfully unaware buffoon, she is slowly being awakened to the fact that she continues to make herself (justifiably) a target for scorn and social media outrage. Hudson, with this material, recaptures her undeniable star quality of “Almost Famous” or “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”.
The thing that’s most refreshing about the mighty specimen of Bautista is that despite his apparent physical space being a factor in every performance, he’s got the heart of a true acting craftsman. He’s often committed to letting go of having to look the best or be the toughest in every scene. Instead, he knows that his instrument is to challenge your reflexes immediately. Johnson is a great collaborator for him here because Duke Cody shows surprising anguish for a towering ‘himbo’ with the emotional depth of a puddle.
If there’s a criticism of the film is that with that confidence, the mystery always feels in hand. My favourite movie detectives attract mess, complication and uncertainty. Jake Gittes (“Chinatown”), Doc Sportello (“Inherent Vice”), Rust Cohle (“True Detective”). These private dicks are those where due to their inadequacies or just how damned formidable their antagonists are, allow you to suspend your disbelief for a single second of the film. Johnson registers the challenge and alters the structure to avoid repetition.
“Glass Onion” is ultimately a joy because despite what’s ultimately well-trodden familiar whodunnit territory, man, it is all kinds of wonderful feeling Johnson’s behind the curtain.