Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery establishes Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc as one of the great fictional detectives of our time — and it only took two movies to get there. That’s no easy task in a field dominated by towering figures like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Nick and Nora Charles. But his at first annoying but ultimately endearing Southern charm helps set him apart, as do the puzzle box stories he’s thrown into, which are not only satisfying mysteries on their own but also extremely funny. That was true of the original Knives Out, and the sequel (with its slightly confusing name) ratchets things up: the cast is more eclectic, the mystery is more complex, and rich assholes are richer and more asshole-y. In short, the sequel is a delight. It won’t necessarily win over new viewers, but it’s just the thing for fans of the original — and it’s exactly what Netflix needs for its blockbuster cinematic aspirations.
Glass Onion starts out a little more playful than its predecessor. A Mark Zuckerberg-esque tech billionaire named Miles (Edward Norton) has invited his closest “disruptor” friends to a weekend retreat on his private island in Greece. The group includes Duke (Dave Bautista), an MRA YouTuber and his budding influencer girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline); Connecticut Governor Claire (Kathryn Hahn); a model, fashion designer, and frequently racist tweeter who goes by Birdie J (Kate Hudson) and her more levelheaded assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick); world-famous scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.) who works with Miles on more outlandish projects; and Andi (Janelle Monáe), a former, spurned business partner of Miles. Oh, and then there’s Benoit, the world’s most famous detective (in the movie).
The theme of the weekend retreat? A murder mystery party where the guests have to solve the puzzle of Miles’ death.
The film is set in 2020, and at the outset, Benoit is depressingly bored. With the pandemic raging, he spends his time in the bath playing Among Us over Zoom with his celebrity friends. So when the invitation shows up, which comes in the form of an intricate puzzle box, he jumps at the chance.
It’s hard to say too much without getting into spoiler territory (and you definitely want to experience Glass Onion unspoiled, if possible), but as you can imagine, the fictional murder eventually turns into a real crime that needs to be solved. The mystery is a complex one. Despite their very different careers, everyone on the island is connected to each other in important ways, particularly when it comes to Miles and his vast fortune. And the film makes a meal of unpacking it all in delightfully satisfying ways. There are so many moments of payoff in Glass Onion that it’s hard to keep up. And even if you don’t care that much about the conclusion, the path there is a lot of fun.
This largely comes down to the cast of characters. The Thrombey family from the original film has nothing on this group of obscenely wealthy jerks — and each member of the cast is clearly having a great time inhabiting those roles. Norton, in particular, is just incredibly punchable as an out of touch tech mogul, one who drops celebrity names with reckless abandon. (On the island, everyone drinks Jared Leto’s hard kombucha and uses a small-batch hot sauce made by Jeremy Renner.) Duke is such an MRA fanatic that he swims with a pistol tucked into his speedos, creating a not-so-subtle phallic connection, while Birdie Jay’s many public blunders — like comparing herself to Harriet Tubman — are a pitch-perfect indictment of superficial celebrity culture. Everyone is so hateable that it’s very enjoyable watching them go through this whole traumatic experience.
But as great as everyone else is, the real highlights are Craig and Monáe. As much as I loved the first Knives Out, I wasn’t necessarily sold on Benoit as a character. The highlight of that film, it seemed to me at the time, was watching this wealthy family unravel as the mystery was solved. In order for Knives Out to become a franchise instead of a one-off, he had to become more interesting. And that Southern charm has steadily grown on me, through Benoit’s mixture of confidence (he knows he’s a brilliant detective, at one point stating “this crime clashed with the presence of Benoit Blanc”) and a warm kind of humbleness. His big brain doesn’t cause him to look down on folks, and he seems to hold a particular kind of contempt for the 1 percent. Who cares if he sounds like Foghorn Leghorn? It’s hard to say much about Monáe without delving into serious spoiler territory, so I’ll be vague in saying that she shows off an incredible amount of range and helps carry the second half of the film. Watching her work alongside Craig is a joy.
On paper, Glass Onion doesn’t necessarily do all that much new. Like the original and many of its cinematic predecessors, it’s a pretty classic whodunit that doesn’t step too far outside of that mold: it just happens to be a really well-crafted example at a time when there’s not a lot of competition. It even does things that seem like bad ideas, like having an overlong explanation to wrap things up. But it still works through sheer force of will: the hilarious writing and wonderful performances mean that I’m more than willing to sit through just about anything Mr. Blanc has to say. The payoffs are worth letting the film indulge itself every now and then.
Glass Onion is a particularly important film for Netflix. While the streaming service has proven itself adept at creating popular TV franchises, movies haven’t come so easily. So Netflix did the next best thing: bought a franchise. The company spent a lot of money on the sequels to Knives Out, and at least so far, it’s looking like it might have been a good investment. Time will tell if Benoit Blanc’s name does end up joining those rarified heights of Holmes and Poirot, but two movies in, he’s off to an excellent start.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery starts streaming on Netflix on December 23rd but will be in select theaters at some point before then. This review is based on a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.