Glass Onion Review: For Rian Johnson, Lighting Strikes Twice



The cast of Glass Onion poses for an in-character photo; from left: Kathryn Hahn, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monae, Edward Norton, Daniel Craig, Dave Butista, Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, and Leslie Odom Jr.

Jonathan Castle, Editor

When writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out arrived in theatres 3 years ago—just before the COVID-19 pandemic began—it was a surprise hit. Grossing 300 million dollars on a 40 million dollar budget, the love-letter to classic whodunits simmered with wit, not to mention gorgeous filmmaking and cinematography. Now, 3 years later and on the other side of the pandemic, Johnson brings his franchise back to the big screen (if only for one week, before moving to Netflix later this month) with a broader, brighter, and equally boisterous sequel, Glass Onion, that is sure to remain immensely entertaining for years to come.

This time set on a private island in Greece, Glass Onion follows a group of self-proclaimed “cultural disruptors,” when their enigmatic sponsor, Miles Bron (Edward Norton), invites them to a murder mystery party. This group includes Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), a candidate for senator; Lionell Toissant (Leslie Odom Jr.), the lead scientist at Bron’s company ‘Alpha;’ Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), a model turned controversial fashion designer, plus her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), who desperately tries to keep her under control; Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), a caricature of a “male rights” activist; Whiskey, Cody’s girlfriend; and Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monae), Bron’s ex-wife and co-founder of “Alpha.” But things take a turn when world-renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc inexplicably appears on the guest list.

Glass Onion uses the same narrative structure as its predecessor, the only change is the greenery around it. But those structural similarities does not mean tonal congruence; as Freshman Ana Chiquillo put it: “[It] just didn’t have any clear similarities [to the first] aside from the detective.” Expanding on what Chiquillo said, the vibrant sun swept vistas of summertime Greece are in stark contrast to the cold, brooding colors of the first film’s autumn laden northeast, but that doesn’t change the series’s founding structural ideas.

The real change, however, comes in the film’s satirical voice. Because, much like the first film, Glass Onion hides layers of meaning underneath its entertaining shell, but it’s much more direct than the first film. It chooses clear targets and focuses on a single character’s never ending quest to gain attention. He’s so desperate for the constant appraisal of being called a genius and a revolutionary that he’s willing to hang his “friends” from the rafters to get it.

This fixation on a bigger societal commentary broadens the film’s themes and allows for a deepened sense of adventure, but it can also muddy the water. As Junior David Chiquillo testified, “The characters were great but the exposition felt it overshadowed the mystery itself. [The first film’s smaller scale left] more for the audience to guess.”

This might disappoint audience members looking for a Murder on the Orient Express-style story,—a story limited to one or very few locations, focusing more on the mystery itself than the setting—but it will be even more exciting for those craving a big-budget, large-scale mystery, which have been so scarce in the Hollywood of late. And Johnson’s direction is steady-handed; he maintains control over what could have easily become an unwieldy project.

He’s also aided by talented performers; Monae, in particular, provides exemplary work. Craig is as charmingly off-kilter as he was the first time, and the supporting players are all great. There are also a fair number of cameos, including two people who have passed away since the film was shot; the film is dedicated to their memory. This warm-hearted tribute to lost stars is indicative of Johnson’s palpable love of the material, which is what ultimately makes this film such a great crowd pleaser for the holiday season.

While it should have remained on the big-screen for longer, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery will certainly have audiences reaching for the microwave popcorn when it hits Netflix on December 23rd.

The first Knives Out was a brilliant send-up of the whodunnit that seemed impossible to follow, but for Rian Johnson, lighting strikes twice.