‘Glass Onion’ Review: A Densely Layered Comic Whodunit
The secret of a great murder mystery is a mixture of complexity and solvability. The case needs to be dense enough that it can’t be figured out before the solution is revealed — but once the solution is revealed, it needs to feel like the answer was staring the audience in the face the entire time. So the idea of a glass onion — with its densely packed but transparent layers — works perfectly as a metaphor not just for this particular Benoit Blanc detective story but for pretty much every entry in the whodunit genre. And even though Glass Onion is writer/director Rian Johnson’s second whodunit (or third, if you count his debut film, Brick), this feels like his definitive work in this style, throwing everything he’s learned so far, and everything he wants to say, into an extremely satisfying and surprisingly timely thriller.
He also seems to be having a lot of fun doing it, a vibe that quickly becomes infectious. The games begin quite literally, when a group of longtime friends all receive elaborate boxes from their billionaire buddy Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Each box contains a series of puzzles that, once solved, invite them to Miles’ private Mediterranean island. When the friends arrive in Greece, they find two surprising interlopers: Andi (Janelle Monae) a former member of the tight-knit crew who had a falling out with Miles over a business venture, and Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), Rian Johnson’s master sleuth from Knives Out.
Miles supposedly invites this group — rising politician Claire (Kathryn Hahn), Twitch streamer Duke (Dave Bautista), aging supermodel Birdie (Kate Hudson), and scientist and Miles employee Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.) — on a lavish vacation every year. This time, the theme is a murder mystery party. But Benoit Blanc, in his unique Southern drawl, suspects <dramatic pause> foul play. Sure enough, one of the island’s residents turns up dead before the trip’s first night is out, and as Blanc investigates the potential killers, it seems that everyone has both a motive and an opportunity.
Although Blanc is the only holdover from Knives Out, Johnson maintains a very similar air of comic mystery, along with a twisty structure that bounces back and forth between past and present at pleasantly unexpected junctures in the narrative. He also finds space in his colorful confection for some pointed social commentary. Where Knives Out’s story included a message about undocumented immigrants, Glass Onion also serves as a cautionary tale about our society’s blind faith in the brilliance of tech magnates and, in that regard, its timing basically could not be better or funnier. And in general, Glass Onion is a much sharper comedy than Knives Out, with snappier dialogue, flashy cameos, and quirkier characters.
The cast standout might be Norton, who nails the essence of a very specific kind of egomaniacal entrepreneur. But he has a lot of competition. Bautista is hilarious as the macho, gun-toting Duke — who is totally henpecked by his tiny, soft-spoken mother (Jackie Hoffman, in a brief but unforgettable appearance). And Craig is even looser and more at ease than in Knives Out, striding through the film in an endless wardrobe of whimsical vacation wear. (The movie’s extravagant costumes were designed by Jenny Eagan.) Monae’s Andi seems simplistically icy in the early scenes, but her cold exterior hides as many layers as some kind of crystalline root vegetable whose name escapes me at this moment. Knives Out had a wonderful collection of actors as well, but Glass Onion’s cast is so good, you never miss them.
So many of Netflix’s choices baffle me, from the movies they choose to make to the way they choose to promote (or mostly ignore) those titles. But Glass Onion (and an ongoing Benoit Blanc film franchise) makes total sense on streaming. These movies are fun, they’re smart, and they’re endlessly rewatchable. This is exactly the sort of thing couples want to see on a date night at home, or families can enjoy on holidays. I would be shocked if Glass Onion didn’t become one of the biggest streaming movies of the year. (It is getting a brief run in theaters this week before its Netflix premiere next month.)
I rewatched Knives Out shortly after I watched Glass Onion, and as entertaining as the first Benoit Blanc mystery was, I think this second is slightly better. It has a more visually interesting setting, more cutting satire, and a mystery that is less convoluted and tougher to predict — once again fulfilling its allegorical title. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling any of it, but I will note one clue to listen for: If you pay attention to the dialogue in the opening scene, you will know the movie’s seemingly random structure before it unfolds.