TIFF Review: “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”

Toronto International Film Festival Special Presentations World Premiere

From the dreary coziness of autumn in New England to the sun-dappled shores of a Grecian island, writer and director Rian Johnson takes detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to the other side of the world on a new case in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.” But “Glass Onion,” Johnson’s follow-up to 2019’s hit whodunit “Knives Out,” is no typical sequel. Retaining only Craig from the first film’s cast, Johnson not only moves the action to a new location for a new standalone story with new characters, but also plays around with that story’s structure to create something that feels wholly different from its predecessor, while retaining the same sharp sense of humor. And the result is a rollicking time, one that never lets up on the twists and surprises, always staying one step ahead of the audience just as soon as you think you’ve got it figured out.

“Glass Onion” begins with a seemingly disparate group of people receiving an intricate puzzle box in the mail, all from the same person: billionaire tech mogul Miles Bron (Edward Norton). There’s politician Claire (Kathryn Hahn), scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), men’s rights Twitch streamer Duke (Dave Bautista) and his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), and washed-up model Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), whose harried assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) is constantly putting out fires thanks to her boss’s penchant for word vomit. The box contains an invitation to Miles’ island for their annual get-together, where they’ll be playing a game: a murder mystery game, in fact. But little do they know that the intrepid detective Blanc was also invited, as was Miles’ former partner Cassandra (Janelle Monáe), with whom they all had a falling out.

Johnson has cited the 1973 mystery film “The Last of Sheila”—directed by Herbert Ross and written by the oddball team of actor Anthony Perkins and composer Stephen Sondheim—as one of his primary influences on “Glass Onion,” and it’s apparent both in the set-up and aesthetic of the movie, right now to the dockside gathering and Hudson’s Dyan Cannon-esque costuming. But Johnson proves definitively that he has a firm grasp on the creation of a complex whodunit, throwing the audience off guard with a familiar premise and proceeding to twist it in surprising ways. The story unspools, in all honesty, like an onion, with Johnson revealing part of the story, back-tracking and showing us something more, and then something more, and then something more, until he’s peeled back all the layers and the entire scheme reveals itself.

“Glass Onion” is similar in tone to “Knives Out,” its humor pulled from throwing a bunch of rich entitled jerks under the same roof, but perhaps even more cunning. The film also, like “Knives Out,” deftly merges an old school whodunit with a contemporary setting; the opening scene, for instance, establishes that the COVID-19 pandemic exists in this universe, but it never feels intrusive. “Glass Onion” is far grander in scope than its predecessor and loses the tightness of the narrative some as a result, but even though it takes some time to really get going, it pays off in the end. Any time it seems like there’s some lingering question, Johnson answers it. It doesn’t hurt that the cast is so fun to watch, with everyone turning in energetic performances that result in a distinct array of colorful characters (Hudson’s moronic Birdie is a stand-out). Craig has never been better, not only at Blanc’s Southern drawl and amicable nature, but in the way he conveys genuine empathy and concern for the affected parties. Benoit Blanc is the role he was born to play, maybe even moreso than Bond. But “Glass Onion” is equally Monáe’s movie; she shines as she takes center stage and, quite literally, smashes it.

“Glass Onion” is coming to Netflix on December 23, but I encourage you to see it in theater with the biggest crowd you can if possible. With this film, Johnson proves that evolving “Knives Out” into an anthology franchise was a brilliant move. I can’t wait to see where in the world Benoit Blanc goes next.

Runtime: 139 minutes

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