I remember back when news of a sequel to Knives Out first broke, someone I respect very much took to Twitter with the hot take that of all the characters in that movie, Benoit Blanc was the one character who least deserved a sequel. I don’t know that I ever agreed. To be sure, the aftermath of Harlan Thrombey’s death and the internecine family drama following that murder’s resolution would assuredly be fascinating, but I think I’d much rather leave them to all of that business than come along for the ride.

So here we are with Glass Onion, in which Rian Johnson and Daniel Craig firmly set the mold for a cinematic whodunit franchise, one with all the prestige and complexity of adapting literary works by the likes of Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler, but without any pre-existing source material to pull from. The filmmakers really are trying to build a detective as iconic as Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes, but they’re trying to go to there from nothing without so many decades of inertia.

I don’t know if they’re quite there yet, but these two films together put Benoit Blanc well on his way. How could this be possible?

Well, let’s start with Blanc’s methods. To paraphrase his explanation from Knives Out, Blanc prefers to work smarter and not harder. He doesn’t bother with interrogations or searches or any similar kind of brute force method, he works by way of observation and prediction. Blanc’s greatest strength is in his ability to read people, picking up on their habits and quirks and predilections in their casual and unguarded moments. With this information, Blanc can accurately predict how people will act or react in any given scenario. Thus he employs charm, theatrics, and sometimes even outright deceit to manipulate people and control information, maneuvering all the pieces in just such a way that he’s exactly where he needs to be when the truth is finally shown. This whole process is far more compelling to watch than a series of repetitive interviews with all the suspects, and it makes for enthralling reveals.

But before we go any further, let’s move on to the basic premise, shall we?

We lay our scene in May of 2020, during the initial months of COVID-19 lockdown. A frankly brilliant touch, as we learn so much about who these characters are by how they respond to the pandemic.

  • Governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is running for senate on a platform of green energy and fighting climate change even as she’s working from home and trying to keep her preschool kids in check.
  • Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) is a lead researcher for a huge tech firm, taking umpteen Zoom meetings as he works in an empty lab.
  • Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a gun’s rights advocate and MRA with a legion of misogynist followers streaming from a studio in his mother’s house.
  • Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is a brain-dead socialite with a long history of culturally insensitive remarks, and it’s anyone’s guess how many were borne of sincere ignorance. She hosts huge drunken house parties during a freaking pandemic without a single face mask in sight.
  • Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monae) is all alone in an empty garage. More on her in a minute.

The common thread between all these people is Miles Bron (Edward Norton), an eccentric tech billionaire riding out the pandemic in an opulent mansion on his own personal island in Greece. I hasten to add that not only is Lionel one of Miles’ most senior employees, but Miles is also the most prominent sponsor funding the respective careers of Claire, Birdie, and Duke. As for Andi, she co-founded Miles’ tech company before she got forced out and lost her entire fortune in the legal action that followed.

The plot kicks off when Miles sends out an elaborate invitation for his most trusted old friends to join him on a weekend at his island in Greece. To spice up the weekend, Miles has planned to stage his own murder with the challenge of seeing who can solve it.

Enter Benoit Blanc, who’s been locked down in his apartment for the past few months and he’s already bored out of his mind. Then he gets an invitation to Miles’ little weekend getaway. Except we learn later on that Miles didn’t send the invitation. Even so, Miles agrees to let Blanc stay on for the staged murder anyway, and then bodies really do start dropping. Intrigue ensues.

Taking a closer look at both movies, there are a number of recurring reasons why they’re both so brilliant. To start with, each film comes out with a reveal at the halfway mark that retroactively upends everything we’ve learned up to that point. Hell, Glass Onion goes so far as to replay the entire first half of the movie from a whole new perspective, just to show us how nothing played out like we’d been led to believe the first time around.

The other big factor is of course the political angle. Both films are wickedly incisive in taking down high rollers and big talkers all across the political spectrum. As far as these filmmakers are concerned, it doesn’t matter whether the wealthy and powerful identify as conservative or liberal or anything in between. In the final analysis, anyone living in comfort is only concerned with keeping what comfort they have, and they’ll abandon their professed ideals just as soon as that livelihood is threatened. Hell, they’ll even turn on their own allies or join with their most hated enemies if it suits their best interests in the moment. Not only does it make for a powerful political statement, but it doubles as a compelling dynamic between characters in the context of who could be driven to commit murder and why.

It’s especially compelling in the case of this particular mystery. Without giving too much away, the most basic conceit of this film is that the solution is so impossibly simple. Of course any mystery is always easier in retrospect when you already know the answer, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m dead serious when I say that the first and most obvious solution is exactly what happened. Because despite all the posturing, all these famous and successful and fabulously wealthy people are in fact impossibly stupid.

Consider that this movie started production in Summer 2021 and it just happened to come out after Elon Musk burned $100 billion and his entire public image by displaying his own arrogant idiocy for all the world to see. It’s tempting to say that the filmmakers are that brilliant, but then I remember that Musk and his ilk are just that fucking basic. Either way, this film had the great fortune to come out right when we were all primed to receive the message.

Perhaps most importantly, a huge amount of the series’ power comes from the fact that against all logic, Blanc himself is not the hero of these films. His job is to expose the truth, that’s it. In theory, this means that as soon as he solves the case, he hands things over to the cops and judges. But in practice, both films end with Blanc handing the reins over to some other character with the challenge of finding the courage and integrity to act on this new information towards a just resolution. As a direct result, both movies end on an empowering note that’s immeasurably satisfying to watch.

Then we have the cast. I don’t know how the filmmakers do it, but both of the films so far have effortlessly procured the finest talents imaginable. It certainly helps that Rian Johnson has long since proven his proficiency with potboilers by way of Brick and his time on “Breaking Bad”. But then we’ve got Daniel Craig in a franchise role that seems to fit his comfort zone, much closer to his show-stealing turn in Logan Lucky than his breakout role in the Bond films.

Likewise, Bautista, Hudson, Odom Jr., and Norton all look like they’re having a grand old time. Madelyn Cline shows up as Duke’s girlfriend — because I don’t think Netflix would ever sign off on a film project unless it starred an actor from one of their hit TV shows — and she brings legit depth to a character who’s basically a trophy girlfriend. I’m sorry to say that Jessica Henwick is tragically underutilized as Birdie’s hapless assistant, but she makes the best of what she has. Noah Segan gets a running gag as some random guy squatting on the island, mostly because I don’t think Rian Johnson would ever think of making a movie without him. (Quick reminder: Segan already appeared in this franchise as a totally different character in Knives Out.)

Then we have the cameo players. I don’t dare spoil the legion of celebrities who poked their heads in for some hilarious gags all through the runtime, but I’d be remiss not to mention one especially delightful scene with the late Angela Lansbury and the late Stephen Sondheim. Alas, not all of the cameos work so well. Hugh Grant shows up looking like he wandered onto the set by accident, and Ethan Hawke is lamentably wasted as a character whose sole purpose is to “inoculate” the characters against COVID. (Twenty bucks says that was hydroxychloroquine.)

But easily the MVP of the entire cast is Janelle Monae. At this point, I’m convinced that Monae doesn’t get more work because so few roles are worthy of her time. Truly an incomparable talent, she deserves way more than she gets.

I know I’m not typically one to say that any movie — particularly a Netflix release — absolutely should be seen on the big screen when so many filmgoers have perfectly legitimate reasons to wait for streaming, but I’m going to make an exception for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. I strongly recommend seeing this one on the big screen as quickly as possible.

I don’t make this recommendation lightly. And I’m not only making this recommendation because it’s a star-studded affair with so many incredibly talented actors playing out a first-rate finely crafted murder mystery with an explosive climax, all more than worthy of its superlative prequel. I strongly recommend seeing this movie in the theaters because it demands to be seen with as few distractions as possible, away from the comfort of your living room, when stopping to breathe and/or check online for spoilers isn’t an option.

That said, while checking the film in theaters is the ideal option, this is absolutely a film that should be seen by any possible means as quickly as possible. The sequel only reinforces what made the first film so great while serving up a whole new plate of wonderful surprises, and I’m on board with this series for as long as it lasts.

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1 thought on “Movie Curiosities — Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

  1. Glass Onion is definitely a great follow up to Knives Out. I’ve also been recommending everyone to see it in the theaters (especially given they’ll have to wait until December 23rd for it to arrive on Netflix).

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