Part-Time Review: Glass Onion - A Knives Out Mystery (2022)


Glass Onion is a fun and sprawling mystery story update on the basic Agatha Christie template (especially And Then There Were None) that bests its predecessor in almost every aspect, but still can’t quite shake its originals faults. The detective Benoit Blanc is back from his previous outing (one that I disliked immensely) to help solve the mystery of a killing at a billionaire’s private island during a reunion of his close friends. Director/writer Rian Johnson shines in the setup here, introducing lots of characters, giving us some funny dialogue, and making every scene and detail feel important. I particularly enjoyed all of the seemingly random details and dialogue getting deeper meaning by the end. Another favorite sequence sees Blanc enjoyably take the wind out of the sails by solving something major early in the film. It's a genuinely funny moment. There’s a key editing decision in the structure of the film that I could see upsetting some people, but I think Johnson more than earns it by the end. I’ll leave the rest of the plot alone, that’s most of the fun anyways, and I’ll say that I really enjoyed how everything unfolded. All of the performances are fun and interesting, with Kate Hudson, Edward Norton, and Daniel Craig really seeming to enjoy themselves here. There's some really funny re-occurring gags and a handful of memorable sequences. If you are looking for a thoughtful and detailed murder mystery that wraps up everything into a neat little bow and still delivers on some fun and humor than this is a pretty good film. If you’ve no desire to read any criticism with minor spoilers, then move on. However, this is a complicated film for me.

The central problem I have with the film is the same problem I have with Rian Johnson’s first Knives Out film – he seems to begin with an end moral message in mind and then builds out his characters/plot backwards from that theme. In other words, Rian’s two films feel like they are stories that spring out of a message rather than a message that emerges from naturally a story. It’s similar to a bad Christian faith film that starts with the end message in mind, “Okay, we want people to hear the gospel presented to them” and manipulates everything in the story to that end – its inorganic storytelling that puts message above everything and makes the characters and their world feel like it has been overly manipulated by the writer. What do I mean?

In the first film it was clear Rian wanted to tell a story about America being too entitled, spoiled, and ignorant to really carry on the torch into the next generation – as the play Hamilton put it, “immigrants get the job done.” The entire murder story was crafted around a spoiled family fighting for the inheritance (wrongfully gained we learn) carried this message and required a lot of one note and unlikable characters to get there. When contrasted with the immigrant maid who was written as the perfect inheritor - the message was obvious and clear. Similarly, Rian has crafted a second film around exposing Trump/Musk/Zuckerberg like figures and the sycophants that surround them. To that end, he populates the film with characters we can find (mostly targets the left loves to aim at) it easy to hate on: the empty-headed fashionista influencer, the climate change denying politician suckling on big business, a toxic male influencer, and a shady opportunistic scientist. Benoit Blanc again comes to the rescue and protection of a female person of color who is being oppressed by this group. Once you see the pattern, it really becomes obvious. 

In a lengthy explanation scene, Benoit Blanc says, “Well, I keep returning in my mind to the glass onion. Something that seems densely layered, mysterious and inscrutable. But in fact, the centre is in plain sight. And that is why this case has confounded me like no other. Why every complex layer peeled back has revealed another layer, and another layer, and come to naught. And that was the problem right there. You see, I expected complexity. I expected intelligence. I expected a puzzle, a game. But that's not what any of this is. It hides not behind complexity, but behind mind-numbing, obvious clarity. Truth is, it doesn't hide at all. I was staring right at it.” In many ways, this sums up my problem with Rian’s films – they can seem complex, intricate, densely plotted, and well-thought out – but behind all that complexity actually just sits a very simple message that everything has been crafted around.

Whether or not you find that message true or false will depend on the viewer. Personally, I found that the message in the first movie was interesting and true on some counts, but offensively false and heavy-handed in many others. I find the message much less offensive this time out than in the first movie – but my main issue is in how inorganic and manipulated Johnson's stories to become. Once you understand the core message then re-watching it and hearing Benoit Blanc say, “It's a dangerous thing to mistake speaking without thought for speaking the truth” to Kate Hudson’s character makes you realize this is just a fancy way for Rian to dunk on some twitter personalities. Additionally, when “Andi” later accuses everyone by saying, “You would lie for a lie, but you won't lie for the truth” it’s hard not to see a direct correlation with Trump and his sycophants. Maybe that kind of directness doesn’t bother you, but it does me. It calls me out of the movie and the story in the same way a bad "faith" film does with its heavy-handed writing.

To be clear, I’m not actually saying Rian works in that order – writing his message and then crafting everything after. I’m only saying the end product feels manufactured that way while I am watching it. That’s the word I’d leave my review with – manufactured. A real onion grows naturally, but a glass onion must be manufactured in a meticulous process. While I enjoyed the film overall, I was never able to shake the feeling that the story was manufactured for an end rather naturally occurring.