New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: MOVIE REVIEW: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Images courtesy of Netflix

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY— 4 STARS

For this writer, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery had two external debates to answer in the thick of all the baked-in questions of its own plot. Was it the mystery or the Benoit Blanc figure that enraptured us the first time with Knives Out three years ago? Secondly and more pertinent, after deconstructing and demystifying the “whodunit” subgenre, where can any kind of sequel go next? 

As it turns out, the answers fill a cornucopia with oxymorons. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is awfully good at making its small crowd of pretty ugly people and terrific liars stand out amid open secrets and loyal opposition. That combination may or may not be always the best impression. Untangling that to put it more simply, all you need is a crack mystery and the sleuth takes it from there. Undoubtedly, Oscar-nominated writer-director Rian Johnson and star Daniel Craig are out to top themselves and, in many areas, achieve that very thing. The film hits Netflix on December 23 after an all-too-brief theatrical run.

Set in May 2020 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a collection of five key people in high places receive large puzzle boxes from their billionaire tech baron friend Miles Bron (3-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton). Beneath its elaborate layers of quizzes and machinations is an invitation to a murder mystery party on his private island in the Aegean Sea. Miles is the kind of person of stature that if he summons, you clear everything and go.

The most composed two of the five appear to be Lionel Touissant (Leslie Odom, Jr. of One Night in Miami), Miles’ lead scientist, and working mother Connecticut governor Claire Debella (WandaVision villainess Kathryn Hahn). Two others are the mildly unhinged pair of fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson, aging perfectly) and the gun-toting Twitch streamer Duke Cody (Dune heavy Dave Bautista). They are scandal magnets orbited by Birdie’s beleaguered damage-controlling personal assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick of The Matrix Resurrections) and Duke’s sauced main squeeze Whiskey (Madelyn Cline of Outer Banks).

The fifth person to receive a puzzle box is the first swerve. She is Cassandra “Andi” Brand, Miles’ former business partner, played by Hidden Figures star Janelle Monáe. Andi was recently, and very publicly screwed, out of her share of Bron’s company in the courts. Her stoic appearance is a shocker to the group who go way back to their bar-hopping days before fame and fortune launched their lives and careers. Cassandra Brand may be a surprise, but she is not the biggest wild card on the island.

That would be Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, this fictional world’s preeminent detective. He is both flustered and fascinated to join this decadent jamboree. The rub is Miles did not formally invite Mr. Blanc. Someone else sent him the puzzle box, orchestrated his travel to Greece, and insisted on his attendance. Flattered by Blanc’s reputation and intrigued at this new monkeywrenching riddle, the very egotistical Miles greets Benoit to join the three-day weekend escapade as an watchful observer.

LESSON #1: THE COMPANY YOU KEEP– In Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, this loyal-to-a-fault old crew call themselves “disruptors” because of their go-getter ambition to cross lines, break norms, and cause excitement in their given fields. As Miles celebrates the nickname further, it’s also about the attitude to weather the pushback to keep going and break bigger systems. Because loyalty is supposed to be lockstep in this beautiful circle, part of the fun of the movie is wondering who will turn on another. What motive and opportunity will be employed to implode friendships and sever symbiotic relationships. Who lies for the truth and who lies for a lie? Damnation and denial will threaten disruption at that point. 

Sure enough, what begins as a cheeky dinner party of fictional homicide at Miles’ Glass Onion mansion retreat turns into a legitimate crime scene in the making. The less you know the better. Anyone has the potential to be more or less than they seem. Being a Knives Out mystery, the potpourri of gathered personalities is an essential part of the amusement that follows. The strength of that entertaining deception lies in the assembled actors.

Big stars are here in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery to play outlandish characters, and, boy, do you ever get them in abundant portions. The challenge for Rian Johnson was to guide these known commodities to play against their obvious traits. For example, getting Dave Bautista to play a hulking dude, Edward Norton to play a vain asshole, or Kate Hudson to play a ditz is easy. The Star Wars: The Last Jedi director and his screenplay needed to give them other facets that plant doubt or amplify the caricature on display. About half the time, at best, does that elevation happen for this showy cast. Spoilers would break to tell you who.

LESSON #2: READ THE ROOM– Keen viewers of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery will lean forward and squint their eyes to see potential hidden dangers within this lavish “commune of creativity” setting and cracks in these opinionated characters. How the unworried Miles Bron, sitting in a position of perceived power, reads the room and flexes away from jitters is one speed of vanity. Another is the pragmatic Benoit Blanc. With his signature panache and Southern courtesy, he is hilariously quick to burst every bubble with his extreme investigative prowess for spotting dunderheaded obviousness. See if you can keep up.

However, just when the film gets rocking and rolling with precarious intrigue that drops our jaws, Johnson freezes the momentum for a hackneyed move from Quentin Tarantino’s bag of tricks. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery rewinds the clock for a sidebar of alternative views of earlier scenes. Like The Hateful Eight, a hefty chunk of time is spent revealing the background hidden agendas, namely Cassandra’s surprise inclusion and how Benoit Blanc came to be involved. 

That sequence, by design, pulls back the curtain and changes everything. It’s a questionable storytelling choice for the sake of panache and showiness, which is pure Rian Johnson. What it does accomplish is packing explosive punch and purpose into the grenade that is Janelle Monáe’s ostracized character. The actress rises to the occasion to become quite the fierce linchpin for the whole damn thing in very unexpected ways, had those way not been fully explained just past the halfway point of the movie.

LESSON #3: WE WANT TO BE TRICKED– Part of the fun of a “whodunit” is the sliding scale between dramatic irony and unresolved plot points. Audiences enjoy holding information in one hand and their own place in the larger darkness in the other. They want to feel smart and duped at the same time. By offering heaping scoops of fully outlined twists and tumultuous unknown results, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery plays both sides and continues his deconstruction of the gumshoe subgenre (while making fun of Clue for the second movie in a row, and rightfully so). Some will call that double the entertainment while others will say those effects cancel each other out. 

Johnson’s sequel sprays out the perfume of decadence and seeks to smear it with devilish glee. Filmed on the island of Spetses, the production design elements of Sleepy Hollow Oscar winner Rick Henreichs and his team, from the lovely location work to the ornate set decoration, are exquisite. Peeping on peepers, Johnson’s trusted cinematographer Steve Yedlin (six collaborations) gets playful with some split screen bits, shadows, blunt symbols, and other lurking angles. Overall, everything is a little richer, a little prettier, and, admittedly, a little more bloated than the first Knives Out.

Luckily, as aforementioned, the sleuth takes it from there and he’s a hoot. With every “fiddlesticks” and “hell’s bells” exasperation, Daniel Craig and his slim cravats flip everything about Glass Onion for a loop every chance he gets. As if playing James Bond for a generation wasn’t iconic enough, the 54-year-old Brit has carved out another signature role we cannot get enough of that will define his career. Savoring this charm with the right cases and opposing actors to work against, he and Rian Johnson can rotate this party for decades without wearing out either of their welcomes.

 Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (L-R) Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monae, and Daniel Craig. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

 Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Kate Hudson as Birdie, Leslie Odom Jr. as Lionel, Kathryn Hahn as Claire, Edward Norton as Myles, Jessica Henwick as Peg, Madelyn Cline as Whiskey and Dave Bautista as Duke. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2

 GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc, Dave Bautista as Duke, Edward Norton as Miles and Madelyn Cline as Whiskey.  Cr: John Wilson/NETFLIX

 Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Jessica Henwick as Peg, Kate Hudson as Birdie, and Janelle Monáe as Andi. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

 GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) Jessica Henwick as Peg, Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc and Janelle Monáe as Andi.  Cr: John Wilson/NETFLIX

 GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) Edward Norton as Miles and Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc.  Cr: Courtesy NETFLIX

 GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc. Cr: John Wilson / Netflix © 2022

 GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc and Janelle Monáe as Andi.  Cr: John Wilson/NETFLIX


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