Director: Rian Johnson Starring: Daniel Craig, Ed Norton, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Jessica Henwick, Leslie Odom Jr., Madelyn Cline, Janelle Monáe Running Time: 139 minutes
Steve Jobs is dead. Tough break for him, but it does make brand management at Apple easier. The public perception of the ‘genius billionaire’ – innovative, enigmatic, benevolent – is pretty much frozen in amber for Jobs now even when we know it’s more complicated than that, and in the decade since we’ve seen a variety of emperors flail and fail to cling to the perception that they’re wearing clothes. Unlike Musk, Thiel, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Rowling, West and the rest of the guillotine dodgers, he hasn’t had years to reveal more layers, expose more idiocy or cruelty, and burn more bridges and build more resentment. Death is still certain even for those who don’t pay taxes, and yet the system around them persists.
Getting away with murder is this crowd’s whole thing, and the finality of death, the way it locks your Wikipedia page and settles your story, can make it even harder for the truth to come to light: getting away, with murder. In Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Rian Johnson ups the stakes in standard sequel fashion, moving focus from an old money ‘well off’ family to a rabble of the uber-rich, the better to plunge in deeper and use the whodunnit question to ponder a knottier mystery: how do you kill the man who has everything?
It’s mid 2020 and Daniel Craig’s ludicrously voiced dandy detective Benoit Blanc is in a rut, wallowing in pandemic cabin fever and desperate for the stimulation of a new case. He gets it when an intricate puzzle box arrives at his door, containing an invitation to an island getaway hosted by billionaire Miles Bron (Ed Norton). Bron has invited his closest friends/most desperate hangers on along to a clandestine murder mystery weekend on the Greek island that he owns, an opportunity to show off his obscene wealth and faux humility in equal measure.
A breaker of rules (his whole party is Kardashian-adjacent bubble bursting) and pusher of boundaries (he’s the type of billionaire to buy priceless art just to say he owns it), Bron sees his friends as fellow ‘disprupters’. The entire island is a tribute to the narrative Bron has built around his rise to the top, from the ‘Glass Onion’ dive bar where he and the gang met, to his vague technocratic supercompany Alpha – the company that is, that he pulled out from under one of the pack. Under Blanc’s careful eye, it quickly becomes clear that all is not what it seems – someone may have good reason to want Bron dead for real, and not just because he’s clearly an odious prick.
Guests include Dave Bautista as a far-right streamer compensating heavily alongside his bored armcandy ‘Whiskey’ (Madeline Cline), Leslie Odom Jr. as the brains firmly under both Bron’s thumb and his shaky grasp of what’s scientifically possible, Kathryn Hahn as a politician on the rise, Kate Hudson as a fading model, now an influencer with a cancel wish and a beleaguered assistant (Jessica Henwick) and finally Janelle Monáe as Andi Brand – Bron’s personal Eduardo Severin, pushed out of Alpha and the circle of friends.
Monáe gives one of her best performances to date, her white-hot anger always palpable under a more complex surface. Blanc, and the clear relish that Craig plays him with, keeps the movie on tempo while the audience picks up on clues and sifts through backstory, a capable, charming and hilarious guiding hand. But by the nature of the detective’s role in this kind of story, he’s on the sidelines. The bickering group, broadly sketched and boldly played, are as fun to hate as you need them to be. Like similar genre-joshing classic Clue, watching these dummies bumble from moment to moment makes for the bulk of the entertainment, with Monáe keeping it grounded and Craig keeping it light, a stacked cast that stays well balanced.
While the camerawork is less arch than in the last film, what it is focusing on is suitably bigger and bolder. Johnson is a director whose greatest strength is his playfulness. He fizzes with enthusiasm and, in this series, charms the audience along for the ride, dying to show them every cute music cue, detailed design, bursting to bring out cameos, thrilling in his own twists and turns. It’s infectious, and probably even more so than in the original Knives Out, Johnson relishes the challenge in topping himself in the writing. Every one of his scripts to date aims to work itself up in complex plotting, getting knottier and knottier until revealing something much more simple at its core – the answer staring you in the face. Some might bristle at that, but it’s an approach perfectly suited to this genre, and the direction that Glass Onion goes is probably the apex of his storytelling so far. His themes are punchline blunt, but it’s in the way that you tell them – the director is in impish form, with the bigger Netflix budget, Johnson throws the kitchen sink – and the candle stick, and the pipe – at his rich shithead targets.
Glass Onion isn’t a call to arms, and some might wish that its satire was more skewering. The Knives Out mysteries are more of a Looney Tunes punch up, taking the ridiculousness of their subjects as a given and delighting in poking fun. While that isn’t going to take down the figure it is most obviously alluding to, and while it might seem at first glace far too of-the-moment to last in the imagination, in the macro it marks an interesting sea change. Its main target was only a few years ago being referred to in our movies and TV as the smartest man alive, a genius to be remembered and revered well into the future. This film might be the first to so definitively cast him, and all those like him, as obvious jokes with a firm shelf life. Even in death these people can be bulletproof but their reputations are ever fragile. Like Columbo before him, Benoit Blanc wants us to remember that these people are never to be trusted, and in this crowd-pleasing romp, we see a reflection of the rich as they really are: thin-skinned and smooth brained. That ought to make it all the easier for us to twist the knife.(4 / 5)
On limited release in cinemas, Glass Out: A Knives Out Mystery arrives on Netflix from December 23rd.