Like the drawling Southern detective he has now placed at the center of two fabulously entertaining clockwork whodunits, Rian Johnson should not be underestimated. The writer, director, and blockbuster puzzle enthusiast has a gift for luring his audience onto ornately patterned rugs, then giving their edges a powerful yank. Glass Onion at first seems like a more straightforward, less elegant act of Agatha Christie homage than its predecessor, the murder-mystery sleeper Knives Out. But to assume you’ve gotten ahead of it, or seen every nature of trick Johnson has concealed under his sleeve, is to fall into the same trap as the potential culprits who dare trifle with the great Benoit Blanc (a joyfully re-invested Daniel Craig).
Anyone annoyed by the topical culture-war trappings of Knives Out (all that background MAGA chatter and drawing-room conversation on immigration policy) may be irked anew by how Glass Onion situates itself rather explicitly at the onset of COVID, with an opening series of introductions heavy on face wear and video chats. Even Johnson, first-rate showman that he is, can’t make these reminders of the recent, dismal past very funny.
Thankfully, he wastes little time getting his fresh ensemble of suspects out of quarantine and onto an island in Greece that’s as extravagantly designed as the movie itself. Peaking with a glowing tower capped by a literal glass onion, the island could also double as a classic Bond villain lair. Craig may have hung up the tuxedo for good, but like Pierce Brosnan before him, he’s likely destined to keep jetting off to exotic locales under the shadow of that iconic role. Blanc, though, couldn’t be much further from Bond in general disposition. It’s a pleasure once more to see the star play quizzically befuddled — there are moments here where he almost strikes the famous French figure of Monsieur Hulot, bumbling through the automated absurdities of a state-of-the-art retreat — before those mental wheels start deviously spinning.
The island is owned by one of our real-life Bond villains, the arrogant billionaire mogul. Miles Bron (Edward Norton), an Elon Musk type, has invited five quasi-famous lifelong companions to join him for a murder mystery game in his private paradise. The “disruptors,” as he calls his entourage, include a scandal-plagued model (Kate Hudson), a concerned chemist (Leslie Odom Jr.), a men’s rights YouTube personality (Dave Bautista), a savvy politician (Kathryn Hahn), and Bron’s embittered former business partner (Janelle Monáe). Blanc is surprised to find his name on the invite list — and so, incidentally, is Bron. Turns out someone else wanted the esteemed gumshoe present at this supposedly carefree gathering.
Knives Out proceeded at a giddy scramble, complicating the rooting interests of its investigation and redefining its rules every few minutes; that was all part of the movie’s high-wire fun. Glass Onion takes its time a little more. Forgoing the crosscutting interrogation sequence that opened the previous movie — an ingenious device best not diminished through repetition — Johnson instead doles out the pertinent exposition gradually. There’s a lot to dole: backstory relationships, motives for a crime not yet committed, and a Hasbro box worth of important clues and items, among them an envelope, a napkin, a glass, a painting, a crossbow, and a Chekhovian handgun that naturally goes missing. All of this amusing in the dinner-party murder-mystery mold, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Johnson is playing it straighter this time; it doesn’t help that his latest characters lack some of the comic zing of the Thrombey clan.
Keep the faith. The slightly sluggish pacing turns out to be a crucial element of Johnson’s sleight of hand. The big early twist of Knives Out — the way he seemed to solve the mystery hours ahead of schedule — is one he can’t repeat here, obviously. But he finds a way to revive the spirit of that brilliant subversion, as the movie doubles back on itself to replay scenes from fresh perspectives. It’s a kind of canny structural time travel, and it races Glass Onion into the grand fun of its back half when Johnson leans into his talent for upending expectations and nesting games within games. More so even than the previous Blanc investigation, this one seems designed to reward repeat viewings; full hindsight will uncover new layers to even the clunkier scenes.
If there’s an ideological framework to this franchise of smoke and mirrors, it’s a puckish distrust of the filthy rich. Here, Johnson’s class consciousness manifests as a pointed skewering of tech-era robber barons obsessed with “blowing up the world,” in a figurative sense that could too easily become a literal one. That’s just good, wholesome fun, dunking on the ego of the billionaire class. But Knives Out proved more affecting in how it foregrounded that element; it was the secret key to the resonance of the film, a brainy comic thriller that expressed its class politics through Ana de Armas’s rather touching portrayal of essential decency in the face of greed and sham philanthropy. Glass Onion ends up sacrificing a little of that stealth poignancy at the altar of its bigger, knottier, twistier sequel architecture. It’s more of a contraption.
Still, we could use contraptions this skillfully, cleverly devised. What Glass Onion does preserve is the essential old-new appeal of Knives Out. Johnson has once more polished the formula of this classic genre, delivering all the expected thrills of a mystery unraveled while touching on contemporary social concerns and gleefully circumventing the assumed course of a narrative. He’s a rare breed of Hollywood hitmaker, a cerebral crowd-pleaser. How do you give audiences more of what they liked while still surprising them? Glass Onion is the answer. Only a sucker would bet against Johnson pulling it off again.
Glass Onion starts streaming on Netflix on December 2 and will open in theaters at an undisclosed time before that. Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues all week. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.