One of Rian Johnson‘s most intriguing qualities as a writer and director is his ability to subvert an audience’s expectations. Whether it be a neo-noir high school movie, or a Star Wars sequel that delves into the nuances of the series’ characters and themes, Johnson’s approach to storytelling in itself feels unique. So, when the filmmaker decided to approach an Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery, not only did he add a touch of Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense to the mix, but his own particular sense of humour and ingenuity. Knives Out was undoubtedly one of the best films of 2019: a surprise commercial hit, as well as a major awards season nominee. After this success, a follow-up case for Daniel Craig‘s instantly-iconic detective Benoit Blanc seemed inevitable. With a new ensemble cast, an exotic location and a narrative with plenty of twists and turns, can Glass Onion hope to recapture the magic of the first Knives Out mystery? Peeling back the layers (sorry), the answer seems to be… yes.
The story sees Benoit Blanc invited to the Greek island home of billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who is hosting a murder mystery party for his friends: scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), Governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), supermodel and fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), her long-suffering assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), internet star and men’s rights activist Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Clyne) and Bron’s former business partner Andi (Janelle Monáe). Naturally, murder soon follows and from there the narrative plays out a series of twists, revelations and a touch of social satire.
What’s perhaps most surprising about Glass Onion is that Rian Johnson manages to pull the same trick twice. The film takes its time to build up to the murder, developing its ensemble of suspects, before pulling the rug out from under the audience by revealing a whole new angle to the narrative that’s initially surprising but quickly feels in-keeping with the story that had been set up. Glass Onion also manages to pull this mid-way twist to slightly greater effect than Knives Out; while the first film turns from Christie mystery to Hitchcock thriller in a curious transition between genres, Glass Onion‘s big reveal feels more consistent with the genre, without being too clichéd.
It would be easy for Johnson to be so enthusiastic about second-guessing the audience’s expectations that he’d make the narrative too convoluted to the point of being nonsensical, but instead places clues throughout, building up to satisfying reveals. This isn’t to say that the ‘big reveals’ will be completely unexpected – much like with Knives Out, the entertainment is in watching the mystery play out, picking up on set-ups, character beats and clues that point towards the inevitable conclusion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ensemble cast are absolutely fabulous, clearly revelling in the ridiculousness of their characters and the story. To highlight any cast member in particular may give way to spoilers (suffice it to say that they’re all great), but I think it’s safe to say that Daniel Craig is, as ever, a delight as Benoit Blanc, finding the perfect balance between keen intelligence and being laugh-out-loud funny. The character is still kept as an outsider, looking in on the main events, ensuring that his personality doesn’t overwhelm the story and the other characters, but is more of a traditional protagonist than the semi-antagonistic role he played in Knives Out.
All in all, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is that rare sequel that inexplicably does match-up to its predecessor. With an ingenious murder mystery plot, an exceptional ensemble cast of actors, some stunning visuals (the mix of scenic locations, extravagant sets and colourful costumes are photographed brilliantly by Steve Yedlin), not to mention some of the clever tricks employed by Bob Ducsay‘s editing and Nathan Johnson‘s score, we have one of the best films of the year. It’s hard to say whether or not lighting can strike for a third time in the already-announced third film, but if any filmmaker can pull off a surprise reveal, it’s Rian Johnson.