Once again, I apologize for another deviation from sci-fi/fantasy/horror in this column, but “Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery” (2022) is simply too good to ignore. This new Benoit Blanc mystery does contain a sci-fi element at its core, by skewering a thinly-veiled Elon Musk-like billionaire (Edward Norton) and his ‘discovery’ of a new, very dangerous power source. Not exactly Star Trek, granted, but speculative fiction, nevertheless.
In addition to a few other favorite genres, I’m also a fan of murder mysteries. I first got into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories back in high school, and I’ve enjoyed the many adaptations thereof, particularly those of Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m also a fan of TV’s “Columbo,” and “Monk.” While I haven’t exactly been enamored with writer-director Rian Johnson’s overrated “Looper” or his wildly divisive “The Last Jedi,” he had my appreciation with his 2019 murder-mystery/comedy, “Knives Out.”
Note: It was “Knives Out” that led my wife and I to purchase a digital projector, after seeing the movie with a masked group of friends on a patio wall one night during the early months of the 2020 pandemic, when all US movie houses were shuttered. Not only was “Knives Out” a great deal of fun, but the novel way we saw it forever changed the way I enjoy movies. In fact, my wife and I watched “Glass Onion” on a 7 ft. collapsible screen, via our digital projector, during an atypically rainy New Year’s Eve.
Yes, “Knives Out” was overly broad at times, with characters only slightly dialed down from your average Carol Burnett Show sketch. Star Daniel Craig, as the flamboyant detective Benoit Blanc, uses a farcical southern accent that borders on Foghorn Leghorn. Nevertheless, the movie was an enjoyable whodunnit, and an unexpected delight. More importantly, its comedy rose organically from the characters, as well as the actors’ chemistry. Now, another Benoit Blanc mystery has been released, and it’s set in 2020 at the height of the very COVID pandemic under which I saw the first film, making it a somewhat meta experience for me.
Since murder mysteries are largely predicated on surprise, I will do my best not to spoil any of the major revelations of the movie in this review. Instead, I will focus on the characters of this tighter, more cloistered sequel, as well as the actors playing them. Some spoilers may arise, but none that should ruin the outcome of the movie, or (hopefully) your enjoyment of it.
Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig)
Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is, of course, the only returning character from the previous movie, as this is more a “Benoit Blanc Mystery” than a “Knives Out Mystery” (more on that later). In this film, Blanc finds himself among a group of frenemies on a secluded Greek Island at the behest of filthy-rich Miles Bron, who’s invited them all to solve a faux murder mystery he’s ordered just for the occasion. What began as an elaborate stunt by an eccentric billionaire soon turns deadly, of course, and Blanc eventually begins to unravel a deeper mystery surrounding a dangerous new solid hydrogen fuel-crystal that Blanc uses to power his estate on the island.
Blanc has but one ally; a character who has her own personal score to settle with Bron and his band of sycophantic phonies, all of whom are indebted to him in one way or another. Of course, Blanc has no such personal vendettas or vested interests with any of the other characters at Bron’s party; he lives only for the mystery, much like Sherlock Holmes. Unlike Sherlock Holmes however, Blanc does have a personal life, as we briefly meet his live-in boyfriend (Hugh Grant) during a flashback, but we quickly realize that his main passions are twofold; the truth, and the dispensing of justice. Despite his wordy and dramatic oratories, Blanc is surprisingly non-revelatory about his own personal life. Much like his name, Blanc remains a featureless canvas tucked within a flamboyant portfolio.
Note: I’ll admit, Benoit Blanc was a character I wasn’t sure I liked when I first saw “Knives Out.” His broad Southuuuhn accent was so comically farcical, that I half-expected him to drop it in the movie’s climax, revealing it to be a surprise affection. Of course, that never happened, and I’ve since made my peace with actor Daniel Craig’s over-the-top detective, whose other attributes (and fashion sense) earn him a unique status within the ‘world’s greatest detective’ subgenre; a clique that includes classics like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, along with more recent entries, such as Frank Columbo or Jessica Fletcher. Blanc’s status as an openly gay man is almost subliminal, with only a brief cameo by Hugh Grant as Blanc’s live-in boyfriend. While I hope that aspect of the character will be further explored someday, I also appreciate that Blanc is all about the case at hand, not his personal life. Nevertheless, it’s an aspect of the character waiting to be mined in a future movie…
Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe)
The character of Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) has a past with Miles Bron, her former business partner, who has since handed over her hat during a devastating lawsuit that cut Andi out of the “Alpha” company she helped create. Andi’s unexpected invitation to Bron’s murder-mystery shindig sets the other characters on edge, since they’re painfully aware of her unjust past with host Bron and themselves.
Andi Brand was once a critical part of their inner circle, in fact, until the ethically-challenged Bron became a megalomaniac and cut her out. These former close friends all turned on her as well, preferring to bask in the glow of Bron’s financial graces. Bron’s betrayal is the impetus for Brand to attend this party on behalf of someone very close to her. I would love to go in-depth regarding Brand’s motives, but alas, that would involve more of those juicy spoilers I swore I wasn’t going to disclose for this review, so…
Note: Actor Janelle Monáe’s performance is a study in duality and desperation, with a woman both confident in her status and out of her depth at the same time. The nonbinary Monáe pulls off these aspects with equal aplomb, and I’ve been a fan of theirs since their role as the real-life Mary Jackson in 2017’s “Hidden Figures.” They bring an earnestness and heart missing from the other shallow partygoers that makes them naturally empathetic. Monáe’s Brand is both the key character and audience surrogate of the movie.
Miles Bron (Edward Norton)
Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is the movie’s Elon Musk surrogate who invites his ‘friends’ to attend a lavish murder-mystery party at his secluded Greek island, at his titular estate. The Glass Onion is named after a funky little dive Bron and his friends use to frequent in their younger, scrappier days as up-and-comers. It’s very fitting that Bron lives in a literal glass house, since we learn that his empire of “Alpha” (nee: Tesla) is built on a very shaky and unstable foundation. After cutting former friend Andi Brand out of Alpha in an ugly lawsuit, Bron has since used his money to ensure the loyalty of those remaining in his circle.
Each of these rented friends turned on Andi in court, earning their stripes with their dudebro financier. At the start of the film, we see that Bron has sent overly ornate, needlessly complex Rube Goldberg-style riddle boxes containing invitations to his party, because Bron loves to believe he’s as clever as his press. In truth, he’s a rich man living in a glass house, enabled by a small group of grifters he’s bribed into loyalty. If not for Bron’s money, these ‘friendships’ would’ve died of natural causes, many years ago. We later learn, of course, that Bron’s motives for throwing his elaborate murder mystery party are far darker and self-serving than his practiced affability alludes. Like his revolutionary (and highly dangerous) new hydrogen fuel crystal, Bron’s fortune and cultivated image are as unstable and mercurial as himself.
Note: Ed Norton is an actor I’ve admired since I first saw him in 1996’s “Primal Fear,” when he played a shy, stuttering, altar boy accused of murder. His performance in that movie was easily on a par with Anthony Perkins in 1960’s “Psycho.” Since then, he’s continued to impress with other dramatic roles, including a reformed white supremacist in “American History X” (1998). His Elon Musk-impersonation in the movie is a lot more charming than the real-life model, but the character’s greed, instability, and misguided intellect ring very true, indeed. With no offense to Eric Bana and Mark Ruffalo, I also believe Norton was the best big-screen version of “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), as well; much closer to Bill Bixby’s beloved television incarnation. In “Glass Onion,” Norton faces off with another Marvel cinematic universe strongman, Dave Bautista…
Duke Cody (Dave Bautista)
Dave Bautista’s character of Duke Cody bears a close resemblance to real-life UFC commentator, standup comic, martial arts guru and podcaster Joe Rogan; a jack of many trades who masters none. Like Joe Rogan, Duke Cody is more famous for his conspiracy theories, celebrity pals and medical mistrust than anything else. Cody’s main goal of late is to worm his way out of the fringes and into legitimacy, by gaining a spot on Bron’s “Alpha News.” To that end, the always-armed Cody (who wears a pistol into the swimming pool) is even willing to use his much-younger girlfriend, Whiskey, as barter. Like most in Bron’s shallow circle, Cody sees everything as transactional.
Note: On the surface, former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista looks like one of those Hollywood musclemen who get parts in movies more from their physique than acting prowess, but nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being another Lou Ferrigno, Bautista has proven himself time and again with scene-stealing roles in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (playing the comically-literal Drax) and “Blade Runner 2049.” Even in comedic roles such as Duke Cody, Bautista brings an intensity and subtlety that is often underestimated. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’s nominated for an Oscar someday.
Whiskey (Madeline Cline)
The pretty girlfriend is usually a thankless role, but the character of Whiskey (Madeline Cline) is, like the character of Marta (Ana de Armas) in “Knives Out,” more than she initially appears to be. Used as a tool for seduction by her meathead boyfriend Duke in order to gain favor with Miles Bron, Whiskey is treated as a commodity. Like her name, she’s something to be consumed only for a good time. To that end, she spends much of the first act of the movie prancing around in bikinis, and announcing that she’s a Taurus. Whiskey, however, has a few surprises; one of which is that her feelings for Duke are genuine.
Note: I know next to nothing about Madeline Cline, but her appearance in “Glass Onion” shows great promise for a future career. From her acting chops in this film, she is capable of much more than being just another pretty face. It takes skill to play someone so believably shallow.
Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson)
The character of Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is a cautionary look into Whiskey’s future; the former ‘it girl’ turned fashionista who’s now middle-aged, deeply bitter, and locked in a permanent state of non-growth as a human being. Trading in her sex appeal to build a fashion empire, Birdie’s hitched her wagon to wealthy friend, Miles Bron. Their history together is wide open for audience speculation, which makes Birdie Jay a more compelling character onscreen than on paper (much of that due to Kate Hudson’s considerable skillset). Birdie’s histrionics at every mishap are both wildly exaggerated and lacking in any sort of depth. She’s all surface, no substance. Birdie Jay is forever attended by her harried personal assistant, Peg (Jessica Henwick).
Note: Kate Hudson, the near-lookalike daughter of comedic actress Goldie Hawn (“Private Benjamin”), first exploded into prominence with her role in “Almost Famous,” which earned her a 2001 Academy Award nomination. In this film, she plays a middle-aged actress turned fashionista who’s no longer in the limelight, but propped up by a collection of wealthy friends and hangers-on. This wonderfully self-deprecating role (which Hudson fearlessly dives into) reminds me of her mother’s role as a plastic surgery-addict in 1992’s “Death Becomes Her.”
Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn)
Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is a suburban mom turned rising political star, funneling her friend Miles Bron’s money into a bid for the Senate. Claire has real-life counterparts in people like Sarah Palin, or Marjorie Taylor Greene—the kind of person who sees a political career as overnight stardom, rather than public service. To that end, Claire is mindful of everything she says on record or in front of a camera, lest it be used against her somehow. It’s as if she exists in a permanent state of Miranda Rights arrest. Her complicity in Miles Bron’s dangerous new hydrogen crystal-fuel scheme has a direct bearing on her soaring political ambitions. The irony of a politician spending the weekend in a glass house powered by an unstable energy source is downright delicious.
Note: Comedic actress Kathryn Hahn has been featured in supporting roles for decades, but only came onto my personal radar recently with her role in Marvel’s “WandaVision” (2021) where she played the big bad “Agatha,” a closeted witch who spends much of the miniseries masquerading as Wanda’s bestie in order to destroy her. I have to admit, every time I see Kathryn Hahn in anything these days, I keep hearing “It Was Agatha All Along” playing in my head.
Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.)
Lionel Toussaint is the new brains behind Alpha, after Bron unceremoniously dropped (and later sued) Andi Brand. A former schoolteacher turned professional yes man, Toussaint has sold his intellectual gifts and integrity in exchange for his wealthy friend’s cash and prizes. When Bron’s merry band of grifters all receive their riddle-locked invitations to his murder mystery party, it’s up to Lionel to unlock them. The result is a well-executed split screen montage, as Lionel does the mental heavy-lifting for the group (Brand’s own solution to Bron’s puzzle box-invitation is a lore more direct). Miles, like ex-colleague Andi, is fully aware of the danger in his friend’s hydrogen crystal, but tucks those concerns away to remain in Bron’s good graces.
Note: The talented Leslie Odom Jr. lit up Broadway with his role as Aaron Burr in the smash musical hit, “Hamilton.” He also recently costarred in another famous murder mystery with the 2017 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (the Benoit Blanc series owes much to the works of Agatha Christie, in fact). Odom is also slated to star in the 2023 reimagining of The Exorcist” (1973), which has ‘bad idea’ written all over it. “The Exorcist”, much like “JAWS (1975) or “The Godfather” (1972) is one of those ‘untouchable’ 1970s classics that does NOT need a remake. We’ll see…
Summing It Up
There is a lot more social commentary and current-events satire in “Glass Onion” than in “Knives Out,” and such present-day relevance was one of the things I enjoyed a bit more about this sequel. Granted, this attribute might also serve to date the movie someday, but thankfully, the hilariously vapid, self-absorbed characters and “Ten Little Indians”-style story are archetypal enough to prevent it from being too time-locked. Future audiences may not get some of the contemporary references, though the movie will still work as a solid murder-mystery/dark-comedy, no matter what decade it’s seen.
Yes, there is a strong Musk-y odor with Ed Norton’s Miles Bron, and for the moment, that certainly works in the movie’s favor (see: Twittergate) However, Bron could just as easily be standing in for Howard Hughes, Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, or any number of eccentric tech gurus our society tends to idolize before it doesn’t. The alignment of the fictional (*cough*) Charles Foster Kane with real-life publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst hasn’t exactly dated Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” either. I’m not saying “Glass Onion” is on a par with Welles’s classic, but the point is the same. History forever repeats, and we can expect many others like Elon Musk, waiting to be satirized, in the years ahead.
In the end, writer/director Rian Johnson has created a superior followup to “Knives Out”, and Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc certainly has what it takes to lead a few more of these films. Hopefully future entries in this series will drop the unnecessary “Knives Out” subtitle in favor of “A Benoit Blanc Mystery.” I understand why the parent film’s subtitle was needed this time, but I’m hoping Rian Johnson’s Benoit Blanc might someday earn the same brand-name recognition as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or at the very least, Frank Columbo.
With fewer characters, a smartly-sequestered setting, and a ticking clock, “Glass Onion” runs a lot swifter than “Knives Out”, despite its slightly longer running time of 139 minutes. This “Onion” is well worth slicing into.
Where To Watch
“Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery” is available to stream exclusively on Netflix. A future physical media release has yet to be confirmed at this time.