In our original review of Knives Out, we lauded Rian Johnson’s ability to craft a film with a thematic message that mattered for the story but didn’t eclipse the pure, whimsical fun of the whodunnit. It was never a given that Knives would get a sequel, much less a trilogy (Netflix ordered the second and third films shortly after the success of the first). But here we are: Glass Onion hit theaters for a limited run last week in advance of the Christmastime release on Netflix, continuing the exploits of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) as he accepts an invitation to a murder mystery party on a private island in Greece. But does Onion follow suit in couching a timely theme into the breezy fun?
Yes and no — but it’s worth mentioning up front that Onion is indeed a lot of fun, and a looser brand of fun that’s perhaps natural for a sequel. The protagonist is already known to us and the budget, frankly, is far larger, and so Johnson and Co. cut loose from the jump and never really let up. If there is a lack of thematic heft — we’ll dig into that more in a moment — then I didn’t notice it during the film. Glass Onion is more ambitious than Knives Out on almost every level, from the locales to the special effects to the cameos (in Knives Out it was M. Emmet Walsh, here it’s Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Serena Williams, Yo Yo Ma, etc, etc). That ambition may not automatically make Onion a better film, but it’s refreshing to see Johnson and Co. commit so fully to breaking fresh ground rather than try to rebottle that first lightning strike.
The film introduces its eclectic cast of characters by way of a mini-mystery: an invitation to a private island from billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) hidden within a complex puzzle box. Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), Claire (Kathryn Hahn), Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Duke (Dave Bautista) all work together to open their boxes simultaneously, sharing knowledge, making wild guesses and relying in no small part on the unsolicited input of others to crack into the prize within. But then we see Cassandra (Janelle Monáe, who pretty much steals the film) facing her own box, alone — and she cracks it herself, literally, by simply smashing the thing open with a hammer.
It’s a perfect encapsulation of Glass Onion, a film which boasts a mystery that’s nearly impossible to solve and yet incredibly obvious at the same time. All you need is a hammer. Johnson achieves this duality in the meticulous construction of the film, which divulges just enough in Act I to send armchair sleuths into a tizzy before Act II completely flips the script. Knives Out had a similar mid-film twist, but nearly every significant beat from the first chunk of Onion takes on another meaning once the first big reveal hits.
It helps that Johnson is confident enough to avoid the typical red herrings you’d see in such a film. Case in point: there’s a lonely stoner Derol (Noah Segan) wandering the island, unaffiliated with any of the main characters. In a lesser mystery, we’d probably add this guy to the list of suspects immediately after a murder occurs on said island. Furtive glances and lingering shots of this backgroundless player. But that runaround is ultimately a fruitless narrative endeavor no matter how it plays out, so Johnson keeps the focus on the more valuable threads instead. Derol is just comic relief at the end of the day, and that is indeed a relief (and also very comedic).
The risk with all of this is in satisfaction, which is probably the feeling every good mystery seeks to elicit. If too much or too little is withheld, the story runs the risk of falling flat at the final reveal. But while the reveal here could easily have induced an eye roll or a shrug, the intentionality in how everything plays out is evidenced right from the beginning. Benoit Blanc approaches this as he would any other mystery, but of course it never occurs to him to simply use a hammer.
Again, though, the most brilliant aspect of Knives Out was the way in which the themes of wealthy entitlement were woven into the mystery itself, complicating things and making the truth harder to find. Truth, in fact, is probably a theme in Glass Onion that was intended to work in much the same way, and so as with everything else it’s a more ambitious reach this time around, and a more difficult landing to stick. I’m not sure it’s as impactful as the thematic messaging in Knives Out, probably because of the more complex nature of the mere concept of truth, but it’s not necessarily a quibble that even registers in the moment.
That’s because the pieces of Glass Onion do click into place with great satisfaction, and because the sequel shares one more point of commonality with the original: it’s inescapably clear that Johnson and his cast had a blast making this movie. The speed and verve of the multifaceted plot is infectious, and it’s still a gas to have Daniel Craig in a role that he genuinely seems to enjoy. It may not have been a given that Knives Out would effectively start a franchise, but Glass Onion feels like a natural and necessary expansion of a world I’ll look forward to revisiting.
Also, sign me up to try Jared Leto’s hard kombucha.
Glass Onion hits Netflix on December 23rd.