2019 does seem like an eternity ago, a very normal year littered with glittering cinematic benchmarks, nearly one every other week. Less often yet more eminent, the rise of auteur’s vindication. Rian Johnson rose back from the fury and confusion of a Star Wars fandom to fashion the last great expression of screen sophistication for the decade since past. Knives Out was that film, a twist-laden detective’s case, razor-sharp with its comic prowess and suspenseful timbre. It was the kind of film to warmly embrace the big screen, just before habits would change. So, it only stands to determine how much an indirect sequel would feign a similar in-person following while elevating its storytelling.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery enters its multiplexes with the readiness to challenge both, pleasing crowds and raising IQs. Without any doubt, it is a sequel that can surpass its predecessor, while still staying in its own unique column. And it is a wide berth to hold, living for its intense, fun-loving moment on the big screen, where it belongs. Yes, Netflix may only be keeping it to theaters for a week (if not hopefully longer in what’s technically a 30-day window), but that still doesn’t diminish its light, its spark, or its energy for a waiting crowd following along with every weighted clue.
A pathway only Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) can uncover, as he willingly joins in on a random getaway to a secluded Greek island. A modest stretch of property owned by billionaire magnate Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who invites a close circle of friends along for a murder mystery weekend. Done in good fun at first, before a foreboding reality simmers and someone does die in plain sight. Blanc steps up, an outsider peering in on Bron’s chummy peers, narrowing their motives down one by one, by one.
They’re all either notable celebs or at least masters of their craft, looking to dive into Bron’s very deep pockets. Be it muscle-bound Twitch personality Duke (Dave Bautista), image-obsessed state senator Claire (Kathryn Hahn), scientist alum Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), overworked fashionista Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), and her no-nonsense assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), or ex-business partner Andi (Janelle Monae), whose brooding presence only crystalizes her bad blood.
In Blanc’s ever-crafty head, nobody is exempt from suspicion under the roof of a literal bulb-shaped enclosure. And like us, merely watching from, say, the coliseum stands, he’s just excited to sink his teeth into another adventure. In equal amounts laidback and anxious, not having taken any offers since the Harlan Thrombey case. Benoit knows it’s his moment again, and so does Johnson. Like any good writer/director who values their work as stepping stones, Johnson doesn’t waste a single moment of his hefty runtime, treating it like a poker game among allies. It’s all so laidback, but not without its foreboding tension, only dealing cards when appropriate, and without overstacking the hand. Even then, the hand is a little shaky, a good tell for when the moment’s perfectly hilarious, or when a secret can’t stay hidden. As each layer unfurls itself, that shaking can only increase in fervor, proving Johnson’s staying power in the genre.
Only Craig can anticipate the moves of his card dealer and pull a deuce with that baritone southern drawl. His energy oscillates back in waves that his ensemble mates can only channel among themselves. The combined force is well on the level with Colette, Curtis, De Armas, and Pine. Except, their quirks magnify broader strokes. Watch Norton for five seconds, and one will find he’s a kingpin of business strategy, an easygoing tech bro whose ethos should look and sound familiar among all his pursuits (think the recent near downfall of social media). If he comes off like a bully, it’s subtle and shrewd, with an electric allure to hide his dingier traits. It’s that very draw of power keeping a macho and straight-faced Bautista, a flighty Hahn, a candid and serrated Hudson, and an often-dandy Odom on their collective toes.
They’re all swaying at Bron’s every confident word, stepping down at times to lay down promising beats. Monae is the true star of the show, often outpacing Craig’s glossy strut, slaying every moment she pops up, conveying cold scorn and resonant caution without a loss of breath or verve. One can’t speak further without divulging spoiler details; know that she is the MVP in Johnson’s handbook. A piercing voice of reason versus a highly visual display of excess, broken memories, and shrewd future ambition.
Without any mistakes, Rian reveals this opulence with real intelligence, never stooping down to meet the viewer halfway. Glass Onion strives to evaluate anyone’s skill of perception and problem-solving, while both recognizing and poking fun at the intersection of wealth and power without demeaning its gaps. And it’s always in ways big and small, as innocuous as a simple children’s puzzle box, or as grand as a rented Mona Lisa, or as subtle as kombucha endorsed by Jared Leto. All these small touches, paired with a welcome slate of cameos, effectively bury themselves in the larger story, Johnson expanding its degree of variation to the point of a mental workout. I had to stop taking notes after a while, unable to keep up with this rapid-fire subtlety. And then, after a deep breath, basking in its unfiltered madness. A sensation coated in an aural gloss by Nathan Johnson’s nerve-wracking, Herrmann-esque opus, and framed like museum backgrounds through DP Steve Yedlin’s filmic shot composition.
The final act really sells the viewer on this jaw-dropping insanity, its case for professional authority gone completely off the rails. When the power of detection cannot just attempt to solve a murder but expose weakening character flaws as the dense vegetable deflowers. Learning myriad lessons from its predecessor on how to keep an audience guessing, imbibing a Christie-like spirit (70s Death on the Nile much?) with a modern criminal edge, does wonders to not only surpass what came before but raise the bar for what’s next.
While Netflix’s return on investment will be up for question (beyond raising subscriber fees), the glory of making another mature, smart, witty mystery for the big screen first should be enough of a win. Glass Onion never stops with its winning ways, delivering a huge victory on every front. My only disappointment was guessing the wrong perp, but that can never take away what and where it succeeds, just being a lively, decadent spot of cinematic pleasure. As well as a new vehicle for Craig’s poise to run a million circles. There will be at least one more affair for Blanc in the offing, let their adventures roll, and roll again. (A; 4.5/5 Horns Up!)
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery plays in theaters for a one-week engagement November 23, before its streaming bow on Netflix December 23; rated PG-13 for strong language, some violence, sexual material and drug content; 149 minutes.