Runtime: 139 minutes
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monae, Kathryn Hann, Leslie Odom Jr., Kate Hudson, Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Dave Bautista
By Calum Cooper
“Knives Out” (2019) was a clever and invigorating twist on the whodunit movie. Rian Johnson is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, and his love for the murder mystery genre came out in chaotic and immensely entertaining spades. A sequel seemed imminent, especially once Netflix secured partnership with Johnson. Sure enough, “Glass Onion” (2019) is as considerate towards its narrative rug pulls as it is to the engaging themes and thrills. It is a massively fun way to end what has been a very strong London Film Festival.
Prior to the press screening, the programmers asked critics to reveal no spoilers. In order to honour this request, I’ll endeavour to be as vague as possible. “Glass Onion” takes place on a Greek island owned by a tech billionaire named Miles Bron (Edward Norton). He has gathered his friends – a colourful array of characters from a range of different backgrounds – on his island for a getaway weekend of games and drinks. Among the group is boisterous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has arrived on the island after mysteriously receiving an invitation too. When things go astray, and a murder is committed, Blanc once again finds himself at the heart of a brand new mystery.
Going all the way back to Agatha Christie, the whodunit has one of the most concrete formulas of any story. Subverting this otherwise rigorously tested sequence is easier said than done, yet Johnson accomplished this spectacularly with “Knives Out”. He does so once again with “Glass Onion”. Yet the subversions are a means of generating excitement in refreshing ways while still maintaining consistent themes. As Johnson himself aptly described during the press conference following the festival press screening, whodunits are more like rollercoasters than crossword puzzles. It sounds odd, but it’s an articulate summary that captures the allure of the genre.
“Glass Onion” certainly keeps the audience on its toes. Even when it’s building up its characters prior to the murder, Johnson’s direction ensures that the suspenseful, adrenaline charged tone attributed to rollercoasters is always present. “Knives Out” had a satisfyingly blunt anti-affluence stance, given the prevalent avarice its ensemble partook in the moment their money was threatened. “Glass Onion” holds a similar stance, as seen among its characters. Norton’s Miles Bron is a clear and much appreciated satirical take on disgustingly loaded entrepreneurs like Musk or Bezos; the kinds who claim to offer potential and opportunities for the world, but are more akin to free-loading hoarders.
The supporting cast all hold influential roles befitting of the contemporary time that “Glass Onion” grounds itself in. Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is a governor who aspires to become a senator. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a YouTuber promoting shallow men’s rights activism, and Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is a supermodel turned fashion designer with an envious side. Bron humorously brands their collective the Disruptors. The terminology is meant to be triumphant, but it ironically enforces the idea that their desires for affluence only cause disruption through the increasing greed they all experience. Johnson’s script fills its story with these modern money milkers and uses the throwback feel that personifies his filmmaking style to deliver mocking commentary.
Steven Yedlin’s cinematography turns every frame into a painting. Glowing with sickening opulence, especially at the sight of the jaw-dropping set-pieces, Yedlin brings the world of the film to life with lush colour. Bob Ducsay’s editing is just as playful. Not only is the editing a key part in telling Johnson’s ambitious second crack at murder mysteries, but it is experimental in its usage. This is particularly in regards to the usage of memory and portraying events simultaneously. Meanwhile, Nathan Johnson’s score enhances the throwback feel, with the delightful but quietly ominous nature of the piano music harkening back to the classics of Agatha Christie or “Murder, She Wrote” (1984-1996).
““Glass Onion” certainly keeps the audience on its toes. Even when it’s building up its characters prior to the murder, Johnson’s direction ensures that the suspenseful, adrenaline charged tone attributed to rollercoasters is always present.”
Jenny Eagon’s costume design brings the fascinating characters – flamboyant and envious alike – to such dazzling life. Following on from her previous costume delights of “Knives Out”, she gives the film an additional layer of sunny palettes; artistic choices that also hint at the capacity for murder lurking underneath. The suits and gowns are as glorious as the sets and visuals. The ensemble cast is once again thrilling in their size and ability to bounce off each other. Jessica Henwick with Kate Kudson, Madelyn Cline with Dave Bautista and Edward Norton with the entirety of the cast are just a few of the great kinetic dynamics that form a complete whole. Daniel Craig is of course magnificent in his return as the Shelby Foote sounding detective who emits an aura of Columbo but has a mind as sharp as Sherlock’s. His suave dialogue laden with riddles and proverbs is just magic to the ears, a testament to Johnson’s writing and Craig’s energetic performance, of which he is clearly having a blast with.
However, just like with Ana De Armas in “Knives Out”, the film belongs to Janelle Monae. She gives a striking performance of multiple dimensions and vast, nail-biting deceptiveness. Talking about her role in depth risks spoilers, but let’s just say she is a tour de force, whose arc ties up the film’s satirical takedowns of affluent avarice very astutely. In a film that juggles such charismatic performances with a tightly constructed script, lustrous craftsmanship, and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, the fact that Monae still emerges as the stand out should speak volumes. All the while, Johnson’s script remains as intricately brilliant as ever while never getting ahead of itself. The carefully considered threads leading to the ultimate resolution is effortlessly smart, and the way the film plays around with identity is especially unique.
Sometimes the editing and reliance on intricate plot pointing can be a detriment to the picture. Where “Knives Out” kicks off pretty much right away, “Glass Onion” takes a little more time to get going. In hindsight, this does make the film a little less well paced than its predecessor. Nevertheless, the entertainment factor and cleverness between films has not diminished whatsoever. Whatever faults may exist, this is still a roaringly great time!
The metaphor behind “Glass Onion” dictates something that gives the impression of complex layers, but actually has a core that can be seen quite clearly. With enough exposure to whodunits, eagle eyed viewers may see films of this calibre as figurative glass onions. Yet the best ones remain as articulately made and joyously entertaining as ever, and that is exactly what “Glass Onion” is. Between these films, and other titles such as “Looper” (2012), “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017) and even his directorial contributions to some of the greatest of episodes of “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013), Rian Johnson continuously proves himself to be one of the most ambitious, most considerate, and frankly best filmmakers out there. There was no better choice on who to close out this year’s London Film Festival!
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