Fiery, But Mostly Peaceful
In Glass Onion, Rian Johnson delivers a gripping murder mystery.
Rian Johnson must consort with demons.
How else can he have known in early 2020 to commence work on a film whose villain is Elon Musk circa December 2022?
Glass Onion, the newly released sequel to Johnson’s 2019 critical success Knives Out, revolves around Miles Bron, a less-than-brilliant billionaire tech-bro with a thing for cars, an obsession with alternative energy, a plan to send manned missions into space, and some odd but ill-defined opinions on society revolving around his theory of “disruption.”
It’s not just that. Another of the movie’s central “sh**heads”—a term used internally for obvious reasons—is a dead ringer for Andrew Tate, or maybe Jack Murphy, or any of the other pseudo-right manosphere posters who have dropped like flies in 2022. I watched the movie Wednesday, less than a week after its full release on Netflix; the next day, Andrew Tate was arrested in Romania on charges of human trafficking. (In Glass Onion, Dave Bautista’s manosphere parody pimps out his girlfriend to Bron to get a spot on the late-night news.)
The film’s fictitious governor of Connecticut, who pretends to be a friend of the “grassroots lefties” while selling her campaign out to billionaire Bron (whose experimental power plant she greenlights in exchange), and then jets off to a Greek private island to hang out with her friends while her state remains in draconian Covid lockdown, even looks like Gretchen Whitmer (played by comedy staple Kathryn Hahn).
It is like Johnson knew, in the first days of the Covid-19 pandemic, exactly who everybody would hate the most two years in the future. For that alone, Glass Onion is a joy to watch; you would think you were watching last week’s Twitter timeline acted out on screen. For his part, Johnson described the film’s timeliness as “just sort of a horrible, horrible accident.”
Glass Onion got rave reviews from just about every critic out there, which is usually as sure a sign as any that a movie is a worthless piece of trash.
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Much to my surprise, the Knives Out sequel was actually pretty good. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it the second-best new film I saw in 2022, after Zach Cregger’s clever and gripping Barbarian (though, admittedly, I did not catch other potential contenders like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and The Woman King).
Extravagant set and costume design paired with a Mediterranean island background give Glass Onion a sleek and lively look. But it is hard to make an ugly movie with a reasonable bankroll these days, and aesthetics don’t count for half of what they used to. One of the most striking films of 2022—the densely and beautifully designed Men, starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear in strong performances—was also one of the worst.
A carefully curated, decades-spanning pop soundtrack and original scoring by director’s cousin Nathan Johnson fill out the substantial empty spaces in the atmosphere of Glass Onion. Rian Johnson’s plot and writing are just as sharp as they were in Knives Out—which is to say, about half as sharp as he clearly thinks they are and twice as sharp as they were for The Last Jedi.
Glass Onion’s acting leaves something to be desired. Janelle Monae’s performance—a double turn as identical twins Cassandra and Helen Brand—is workwomanly throughout but damningly flimsy in a few defining moments. Kathryn Hahn only has one note, but she hits it well enough as a grating, narcissistic bimbo politician. Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is supposed to be cartoonish. But did he have to be that cartoonish?
The rest of the core ensemble do solid work that brings real humor to the mystery-comedy without going too far over the top—especially Kate Hudson, whose racially insensitive model-turned-influencer Birdie Jay is genuinely funny in territory that could easily have gone woke.
But even if Birdie Jay didn’t go woke, Glass Onion still did.
Most who were less than impressed with this year’s sequel objected to its lengthy flashback sequence, one of many not-so-subtle nods to 2019’s Knives Out. I thought it was fine; to each his own.
The real problem is the climactic confrontation between Edward Norton’s maniacal Bron and Monae’s plucky heroine. This kind of murder mystery has a pretty simple formula: it is supposed to be unclear who the good guys and bad guys are right up until the end.
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Johnson accidentally flips the script. All throughout, it is pretty clear who is bad—until we discover, in the last few minutes, that the supposed good guys are lunatics, too.
In the final moments, the entire world of the Glass Onion is up in flames. The match was lit by the two characters we are supposed to see as heroes, all to blame Bron for seven attempted murders and an unthinkable act of destruction, none of which would have happened otherwise. It is pure luck—luck that defies belief—that nobody dies as a result.
The final image of fiery (but mostly peaceful) havoc inflicted as proxy punishment for past sins is perhaps more piercing than was intended by 2020’s accidental prophet. By film’s end, the dark thought becomes almost certain: there must be demons at work here after all.