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Toronto Review: Rian Johnson’s ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’

It beggars belief that what started out as an idle thought — to continue the adventures of detective Benoit Blanc, the world’s “greatest detective” — has resulted not in just the inevitable franchise placeholder but one of the most exciting, funny and downright enjoyable movies of the year. Shrewdly cast, it boasts one of the most brilliant screenplays of the year, not just in terms of its exquisite, laugh-out-loud dialogue and satirical barbs at pop culture but in the meticulous, meta plotting of a traditional whodunnit that keeps the mind ticking over from start to finish. Unusually for a recent Netflix presentation, hardly a minute is wasted, and it’s no surprise that a Christmas release is planned for an intelligent crowd-pleaser that hits a bull’s-eye with every beat.

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Director Rian Johnson was quite open about the original Knives Out‘s influences, and the immediate premise of this sequel — a bunch of friends are summoned to a remote Greek island by an old acquaintance — suggests an homage to the 1973 ocean-bound crime thriller The Last of Sheila, the unlikely and somewhat psychedelic brainchild of scriptwriters Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Glass Onion, however, is simply teasing that reference; after it sets sail, it very much becomes its own beast, setting a frenetic kinetic pace that never lets up. This is the Aliens of the Knives Out universe, an exponential iteration of a great concept that by now knows its lead character inside out and is thinking big when it comes to finding a cerebral challenge that is worthy of him.

(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
Netflix

Here, the host is Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the billionaire owner of the Alpha company, and the friends that gather to sail to his island are a disparate bunch. There’s Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), a politician standing as an independent candidate after losing her Democrat following; Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr), a renowned scientist; Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), a former model with her own clothing line; and Duke (Dave Bautista), a men’s rights YouTuber, who arrives with his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). As they wait on the dock, all are surprised when celebrity sleuth Blanc (Daniel Craig) shows his masked face — the date is 13 May 2020, the height of lockdown — but they are more shocked to see Andi Brown (Janelle Monáe), Bron’s former business partner, with whom there is nothing but bad blood after a bitter court case.

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Having sent out sophisticated puzzle boxes (designed by an apprentice of Ricky Jay, apparently), Bron greets his guests when they arrive at the shore. Banksy sculptures await them on the sand, and Bron is idly strumming “Blackbird” on the guitar he claims McCartney wrote it on (note: please see the film before writing in to comment on this). Every 60 minutes we hear the “hourly dong”, specially written for Bron by Philip Glass, and almost everything about his ridiculous hideaway is commercialised and commodified: “This rich people shit is weird,” as one character comments.

Bron has gathered these seemingly random people for a weekend murder-mystery game that will see them investigate his murder. But seeing as all the guests have a good reason to see him dead (they are all, as Andi reveals, addicted to Bron’s “golden titties”), will the game be played out for real? The guessing game starts now, and the twists and turns that follow make Glass Onion near-impossible to review without spoilers, constantly recalibrating — for example, Johnson incorporates a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo with incredibly satisfying effect — but crucially never straying too far ahead of its audience.

Kathryn Hahn as Claire, Madelyn Cline as Whiskey, Edward Norton as Myles, Leslie Odom Jr. as Lionel, and Kate Hudson as Birdie.

(L-R) Kathryn Hahn as Claire, Madelyn Cline as Whiskey, Edward Norton as Myles, Leslie Odom Jr. as Lionel, and Kate Hudson as Birdie
John Wilson/Netflix

Key to this is an amplified sense of humor that allows Blanc to blossom in a way that the previous Knives Out would not have allowed: now the character is established, Craig has an indecent amount of fun with him, pushing the Southern caricature to the limit and then exploding it within the first 40 minutes in a spectacular piece of wrong-footing. Following his lead, all the characters are allowed to send themselves up — not least the vacuous Birdie, former cover star of The Face and a Twitterer so reckless that her assistant has to hide her phone. Duke, with his gun-holster shorty trunks, is a wonderfully and similarly brave piece of self-mockery, and a career-high Norton — where exactly has this fantastic actor been lately? — is just the icing on the cake.

This leaves two standouts: Craig, now free of Bond, has finally nailed comedy, revealing previously untapped depths (a scene in which the deadpan Blanc hides behind and between a bronze statue’s buttocks is a mini-masterpiece of silent comedy). But the Ana de Armas award for the second iteration of Knives Out goes to the simply fantastic Monáe who puts in one of the best and most intuitively perfect performances of 2022. The explosive finale may be a little messy but Glass Onion isn’t alone in that, joining Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness as an infectiously joyful romp that skews the self-satisfied pomp and literal stupidity of a world gone truly mad.

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