‘Glass Onion’ Isn’t Just Another ‘Knives Out’ (And That's a Good Thing), by Ethan K. Poole
For this review I’m going to do my best to not spoil anything major in Glass Onion, the new Rian Johnson whodunnit set in the Knives Out universe. That being said, this is the type of movie you may want to know as little about as possible to get the best experience, so you’ve been warned.
When it debuted in 2019, no one expected anything too crazy from Knives Out. It was a modern take on Agatha Christie-inspired murder mysteries helmed by divisive director Rian Johnson. With such a star-studded cast, no one would have expected it to flop, but it didn’t seem like the type of movie to make waves either.
However, it was received incredibly well by critics and audiences alike. It was particularly praised for its tightly interwoven plot with a layered mystery to solve, its multiple interlocking and contradicting twists, and its ability to shift between genres without ever losing grasp on its central mystery. It gained a wide following and turned a lot of people into mystery fans overnight. Many people wished for more, and when Netflix announced that it had picked up the franchise for an anthology of films set in the same universe, all centering around the film’s iconic Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) solving disconnected mysteries, hype began to build fast.
Unlike its predecessor, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery had a lot of expectations to live up to. It paradoxically had to deliver on the same experience the original captured while simultaneously being unable to use too many of the same tricks or it would seem too predictable. Its solution, as basic as it might sound, was simply to try to forge its own identity outside of the original’s shadow.
The original movie’s central gimmick is that it appeared to reveal the killer at the end of Act 1. The audience is meant to believe it is her all the way to the climax when it is revealed that a different character orchestrated the whole thing in order to frame her so thoroughly that even she thought she was guilty. If Glass Onion tried anything even in the ballpark of that it would have seemed derivative and old hat.
Instead, it opts for a more traditional murder mystery set up: A bunch of people attend an isolated party, one person is murdered and everyone there is a potential suspect. It’s literally the same set-up as Clue, which the movie itself even references throughout. However, its aesthetic is fresh as the crime scene is a private resort island owned by the world’s wealthiest tech billionaire (who obviously stands in for, among other people, Elon Musk). This sets the movie up for a lot of political and social commentary through its obnoxious Tech Billionaire and his inner circle, which it is happy to follow through with. Lampooning the modern upper class is something the original also flirted with, but Glass Onion kicks it up several notches in both satirical and serious ways.
Johnson pulled no punches when mocking the richest men in the world. While I’m sure some people would argue that he built more of a caricature than a real critique, I would argue the obvious stand-in is a little too close to how the real people present themselves publicly to dismiss the comparison — or the valid criticisms the film lobbies at their feet.
In this politically charged but otherwise standard mystery set-up, you might expect the actual sleuthing to lose its impact, but using a brand new set of cinematic and narrative tricks (that I won’t spoil here) it keeps its detective work engaging to follow and to try to crack for yourself throughout. Its cast of suspects is not quite as thoroughly fleshed out across the board as the first movie, but it still has several standouts and multiple realistic potential killers. Trying to figure it all out while also not losing track of what is hiding in plain sight makes for a compelling case that, as you might expect from the title, is both layered and pretentiously simple.
The second movie isn’t completely different from the first, though. Blanc’s unique detective style remains the same — as does Craig’s iconic portrayal of him as a slightly egotistical but ultimately good-natured ace detective — while still having a humanizing (and loveable) dumb side. It still knows how to subvert expectations without ever feeling like the script is just making things up. It has most of the same building blocks; they’re just being used to construct a different shape.
Glass Onion manages to both sit comfortably next to its beloved predecessor and make its own identity. It is another Knives Out, but it isn’t just that. It is also its own movie with its own message and its own style. It proved that the series had more than one trick up its sleeve, and it might be paving the way for many more sequels to blaze their own paths forward to make a collection just as iconic as the Agatha Christie stories that inspired them.