Peeling back an onion with one layer

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

2022 | 140 min

Rian Johnson

The first film in the Knives Out franchise portrayed itself as an underdog story where an undocumented white migrant inherits a fortune from a wildly white rich man who hates his pampered, obnoxious children. This was a very conservative sort of economic redistribution where an aristocrat gets their way even as it mildly dings the liberal democracy version of a noble family. And, like European social democracy, the redistribution all happens inside whiteness, upholding class through caste while projecting an image of messing with it. Beyond that, it was a very fun and silly murder mystery with a terrific ensemble cast. The sequel, Glass Onion, is even better.

Glass Onion is not a profound film and it does not pretend to be one. It has the great idea of taking a linearly obvious killing and turning it into a whodunit for the sole reason that it’s too obvious and unthoughtful for anybody to believe it could actually be so simple. Building narrative complexity around thoughtlessness – the film uses ableist slurs when it finally gets around to this –  is a neat turn but that’s not what makes Glass Onion engaging. Instead, it’s a script long on good jokes and a committed cast.

Daniel Craig revisits his Knives Out role as Benoit Blanc, a world famous Sherlockian detective hired by Helen Brand (Janelle Monáe) to investigate the killing of her sister Andi (also Janelle Monáe). The set up is a classic Agatha Christie type idea, a bunch of people in a confined space and there’s a murder. A group of Andi’s friends are there and all of them have motives for a killing. Birdie (Kate Hudson) can’t stop being racist on twitter or hiring out to notorious sweatshops and needs the support of Miles (Edward Norton), who is targeted for murder. Claire (Kathryn Harn) owes her political career to Miles just as Duke (Dave Bautista) needs Miles to further his misogynist youtube channel. And last is Lionel (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a tech genius Miles rescued from a substitute teaching job and took with him to the heights of industry. All of them are sequestered on Miles’ private Greek island for a weekend.

Critics have been celebrating Janelle Monáe’s performance ever since Glass Onion premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and, if anything, that praise is understated. They steal every scene they’re in and carry a bunch of great jokes like how their investigative powers continue to grow as they drink ever more of “Jared Leto’s hard kombucha” and the drama of a scene where a drop of hot sauce inches ever closer to their nostril. Kate Hudon is wonderful as Birdie who just refuses to understand anything at all. Edward Norton’s turn is amazing and Kathryn Hahn continues her career long refusal to not be terrific. It’s hard to even properly celebrate what the performers do without giving away plot points because the story and performances are so well integrated but let me save a sentence for Jessica Henwick as Birdie’s assistant who just can’t believe what Birdie does in one of the film’s best jokes.

My personal preference leans towards stories making ethical points and Glass Onion doesn’t really do this and it doesn’t really matter. Rian Johnson makes a vague and correct point about the rich being terrible and assembles an entertaining story around it. Bringing hilarity to an audience is point enough for a story. It does point to the carceral state as an addendum at the end of the story after accountability has already been sought and, perhaps, achieved and it doesn’t need the ableism. But for a mainstream film, those are surprisingly small quibbles.