There’s a scene in Rian Johnson’s latest murder mystery “Glass Onion” in which the film’s sleuth proclaims to his room full of suspects that the murderer’s attempt at pulling the wool over his eyes was just dumb. So dumb it’s brilliant, someone asks. No, just dumb. It seemed to me a strange thing to draw attention to, especially since the plot of “Glass Onion” and the twists of the murderer’s scheme are exactly that; flimsy, uninspired and well, dumb. This is particularly disappointing as Johnson’s earlier instalment “Knives Out” had been such an elegantly and meticulously written story, certainly in league with the Agatha Christie whodunnits that Johnson himself has admitted to have drawn inspiration.
Daniel Craig returns as Benoit Blanc, the smooth talking Southern detective who has achieved worldwide fame for his high profile cases but has found himself at somewhat of a loose end during COVID and reduced to playing Clue online in the bathtub with Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim. So when he and a group of individuals, each prominent in the public eye, each receive a mysterious puzzle box and an invitation to eccentric tech billionaire Miles Bron’s (Edward Norton) Greek island for a murder mystery party, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered to bring him out of his funk. Once Blanc arrives however, he realises that the members of the party are friends from years before, and are individually indebted to Bron to some degree for their success. Rest assured, a murder occurs, a prior murder is uncovered and it is up to Blanc to uncover the mystery and stop the murderer before they strike again.
“Glass Onion” may have been marketed as a murder mystery, but it would be more appropriate to describe it as a vehicle for social commentary on public figures in post COVID 21st century and the corruption inherent in climbing the ladder to success. The problem with that it that there are just too many individuals on the island for Johnson be able to make any kind of meaningful statement about any of them, and so each one comes across as shallow and pretty feeble parodies instead. Edward Norton as Miles Bron is undoubtedly supposed to be Elon Musk, Kate Hudson as outspoken fashionista Birdie Jay is Kim Kardashian, Dave Bautista as men’s rights Youtube activist Duke Cody is Joe Rogan and Kathryn Hahn as Claire Debella, is any corrupt DC politician. If he had taken any one of them and fleshed them out properly I’m sure there could have been something there, but a murder mystery with a gaggle of potential suspects just isn’t the right platform for it. The characters in “Knives Out” for instance all had their political biases, but this was largely confined to one party scene in which they debate illegal immigration, for the rest of the film the family are all united in their greed in trying to revert the contents of the grandfather’s will to their own benefit.
The characters in “Glass Onion” are so heavily defined by their politics and by the figures that Johnson is trying to critique that it’s actually quite difficult to see them as what they are actually supposed to be, which are suspects in a murder. Their sole purpose is to provide conflicting motives, red herrings and assist the audience and sleuth in piecing together what happened. That’s genuinely it. These kinds of movies aren’t the platform for character studies, and I think Johnson has become a little misguided in trying to bite off more than he could chew. And the film suffers as a result.
The big reveals come across as rushed and unoriginal, and rather than the audience following Blanc as he interviews the suspects and solves the case, a third of the film is spent instead rewatching the first act from a different angle and it’s just not enjoyable. So when Blanc comes to the pivotal moment when he explains to everyone his theory, it’s as if he just came up with it on the spot. We haven’t accompanied him during his process and his eureka moments feels unearned; this is even despite the fact that the murderer hasn’t committed anything remotely clever or fiendish or swashbuckling.
One thing he does well, again in the style of Agatha Christie, is to create a setting and tone, down to the costuming, which is unique and completely isolated from his first film. While “Knives Out” was all about the rich greens, tweeds and mahoganies of New England, “Glass Onion” is equally about the dazzling turquoises and whites of the Greek islands. I was reminded of Christie’s “Evil Under the Sun” or “Death on the Nile”, and am sure that any further instalments will again feature some unique exotic location, perhaps a casino in Monte Carlo or a convent in Ireland. A ranch in Argentina or a Safari resort in the Savannah. It’s kind of fun to come up different combinations; a restaurant in Brussels, or a beekeeping estate in the Maldives? An emu farm in Alice Springs or a sultana plantation in Antartica?
I hope that Johnson continues to make these films, he’s a talented director and he’s got a distinctive, quite artistic style which I’m keen to see more of. The danger he faces I think is over complicating things. “Knives Out” worked as well as it did because it was a well orchestrated and well thought out murder mystery. By trying to force feed additional political and social critique where there just wasn’t room for it, “Glass Onion” has sacrificed the sophisticated writing and meticulously crafted plot points that made “Knives Out” so refreshingly exciting. “Glass Onion” is slick, beautifully and artistically shot, but in trying to coerce the film into being too many things at once, Johnson has produced a property that doesn’t really succeed at any of them.
By Jock Lehman