Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daniel Craig, Janelle Monae, Madelyn Cline, Edward Norton, Kate Hudson
Netflix might be billions of dollars in debt but one of the streaming platform’s shrewder financial decisions (and one more likely to be appreciated in the long run) involved spending $450 million bankrolling two of director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequels, beginning with this year’s Glass Onion. The writer-director’s follow up to his 2019 murder mystery is just as wickedly funny and meticulously plotted as the original, with the fresh cash inflow evident onscreen in the change of scenery. Goodbye, interior manor scenes and cozy winter sweaters of the first movie. Hello, sun-kissed Greek island setting, various A-list cameos and a showstopping, CGI-fuelled climax. It’s bigger and more bombastic, but thankfully boasts of the same brilliance of its predecessor.
If Knives Out (2019) evoked the timelessness of an Agatha Christie novel, set against the quaint backdrop of the publishing industry despite its modern concerns, Johnson yanks its sequel even further into the present, underlining the perils of being chronically online. Glass Onion is a whodunnit for the modern age that simultaneously runs the risk of seeming dated one year on by referencing the current pandemic, cryptocurrency and Twitch within minutes of each other. But while times have changed, human nature is very much the same and Johnson once again locates the depth of greed in a group of money-grubbing elites.
Invited to a remote island to participate in a murder mystery, several of these characters are written as sendups of figures the internet has either birthed, popularised or hashtag cancelled, from tech bro Miles Bron (Edward Norton channelling Elon Musk) to Right-wing men’s rights streamer Duke Cody (an impeccable Dave Bautista, cast against type from the stoic, silent roles he’s inhabited in Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Army of the Dead and Blade Runner 2049), his YouTube assistant girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) and designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), whose Twitter app is best deleted. Rounding off the group are governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Miles’s former business partner Andi Brand (a standout Janelle Monae, whose frosty glare can cause the temperature in even the sunniest of climates to drop by several degrees). Of course, it isn’t long before people start dropping too, which is famed detective Benoit Blanc’s (Daniel Craig) cue to step up and investigate.
Working with a streaming platform finds Johnson operating in a looser, sillier register. With the exception of one devastating scene that illustrates the casual cruelties perpetuated by people in power, Glass Onion features less of the incisive social commentary of its predecessor. Instead, it’s steeped in vibes so goofy, it often feels like the director is parodying his own previous detective outing (admittedly tough to do when the film was so irreverent in the first place.) Celebrities are name-dropped with alarming frequency and Blanc’s sleuthing takes on a distinctly unsubtle edge, but all of this still makes for a solid stretch of comedy before the mystery unspools in the vastly tighter and more gripping second half.
Johnson borrows familiar murder mystery tropes and imagery from Christie, but also throws in twists of his own for good measure. Throwaway snatches of dialogue contain significant clues in hindsight. Scenes are revisited, reframed from different angles and recontexualised with the benefit of additional information, a technique he employed so skillfully in Knives Out. And people aren’t who they appear to be, in ways that will be startling yet completely obvious to fans of detective fiction. Once again, over two hours and 19 minutes, Johnson weaves an intricate, complicated tapestry. And once again, he ties up every last loose end with a satisfying flourish. Even amateur sleuths can tell that Netflix’s investment has been a sound one.
This review was initially published on 14 September 2022 as part of Film Companion's coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival