“It’s so dumb.”
“It’s so dumb, it’s brilliant!”
“No! It’s just dumb!”
That simple, brilliant exchange occurs halfway through the final act of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Master detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) explains the film’s murder mystery, with incredulity and exhaustion. Not because the murder is exceptionally clever or challenging. Instead, he expresses disgust at the plot’s stupidity, even though he is amongst the world’s greatest, self-proclaimed “disruptors.” When one suspect expresses shock at the scheme’s “brilliance,” Blanc is horrified at the arrogance and, again, stupidity on display.
Watching it at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it was easy for me to view Glass Onion as just another delightful murder mystery skewering the rich. However, this was before a cavalcade of embarrassing failures by people who were (and in some cases, still are) heralded as great “disruptors.” It would be two months before Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes received an 11-year prison sentence for fraud, Sam Bankman-Fried’s arrest for the sprawling FTX debacle, and the ongoing Elon Musk-Twitter fiasco.
In that context, Glass Onion becomes more than a successful follow-up to Knives Out. In this film, Blanc is caught up in the exploits of billionaire CEO Miles Bron (Edward Norton) and his group of wealthy friends: politician Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr), model-turned-designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), and video game streamer/men’s rights activist Duke Cody (Dave Bautista). Bron invites them and estranged friend and former business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe) to his private island off the coast of Greece, where he stages a murder mystery party weekend. Blanc quickly discovers that this group isn’t as close-knit as they seem, each with complicated business and personal interests that they will do anything, even murder, to preserve.
Writer-director Rian Johnson takes big swings with Glass Onion. Armed with Netflix’s millions and hefty cultural relevance, he aims for a bolder, brassier film than Knives Out. You can see every dollar on the screen, an accurate approximation of unfathomable wealth. The set design and costumes are appropriately outrageous and undeniably stunning. (Blanc’s little outfits are destined to become Halloween looks next year.) Were Johnson more undisciplined, he could’ve jumped the shark and pushed the film into self-parody territory. (Thanks to the abundance of celebrity cameos, it comes close.) However, his razor-sharp script and commanding direction keep its purpose – to emphasize the absurdity of the billionaire lifestyle – firmly in view.
The greatest beneficiary of Johnson’s approach is his cast of contemptible characters. He builds rich, engaging portraits of his subjects, deftly leveraging the film’s initial traditional whodunnit structure. Each feels distinctive and complex beyond their well-worn stereotypes, like the “dumb blonde” or the “incel meathead.” Each actor makes a meal of their roles, relishing in the high-camp dialogue and wild story twists. Everyone is strong, but Janelle Monáe is the film’s undeniable standout. She has the most complicated role and delivers everything Johnson’s narrative funhouse asks – mystery, fury, hilarity – in spades. This group and their messy relationships would’ve made for an urgent mystery even if they weren’t trapped on an island compound. The fact that they are sitting ducks fixes an exciting charge to the film.
Johnson also uses the Miles Bron crew to dimensionalize his critique of the mega-wealthy and their claims of staggering genius. Glass Onion gleefully shreds the idea that millionaires and billionaires are, by and large, significantly smarter than everyone else. Despite his claims of being a world-class disruptor, Bron is a nincompoop who uses his wealth as a shield. He’s someone for whom intelligence is a performance, as is his new-age posturing and past Tom Cruise-in-Magnolia cosplay. He gets away with it because of his questionably-acquired money. It’s why everyone else easily ices Cassandra out for being one of two people willing to hold him accountable.
The other is Benoit Blanc. Half the fun of Glass Onion is seeing how exhausting and appalling Blanc finds the whole affair. Johnson smartly expands Blanc’s role in this film, setting him as a compelling foil to Miles Bron and his sycophants. He is everything the other characters are not. Blanc is wealthy but relatively modest, intelligent, wise, and kind. Miles and his friends are corrupt, cruel, “vainglorious buffoons.” Despite his hopes, Blanc realizes there is no intellectual rigor to be found in this group. (After all, they are led by someone who misuses big words and hires Gillian Flynn to write his murder mystery.) Craig brilliantly conveys Blanc’s disappointment and disgust, part of a broadly entertaining and thoughtful performance that is arguably his best since Casino Royale.
Blanc finds in Glass Onion that the “disruption” is a shoddily-constructed myth, held together by flimsy self-interest, intimidation, and cruelty. The “complicated genius” falls apart under the slightest pressure of scrutiny. Johnson raises a magnifying glass to extreme wealth and exposes its narcissist underpinnings. Becoming a billionaire is not necessarily a marker of supreme intelligence but more likely arrogance, luck, and apathy for other human beings. Johnson delivers the message without a drop of subtlety, but that is the point. His film could apply to many transformative figures who sold the world a dream that ended up a farce. Glass Onion arrives at just the right time, as we peel back the layers of the “disruptor” to expose the hollowness underneath, much like a glass onion.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is streaming on Netflix.