At one point during Rian Johnson’s GLASS ONION, one of the character wails “What is reality?” It’s a fair question considering the plot twist that has just been revealed to the suitably colorful cast of characters, and one that neatly sums up why Mr. Johnson’s second installment in the casebook of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is a more than worthy successor to KNIVES OUT. Everything is in plain sight in this carefully constructed mystery but refracted through preconceived notions and the writer/director’s genius for cinematic sleight-of-hand the way the collection of art-glass sculptures that figure in the scenery warp what’s behind them without actually hiding anything.
As with KNIVES, we are once again among the wealthy, and Mr. Johnson is once again taking careful aim at the corrupting influence of money with tart and ruthless commentary translated into a serious comedy that is deeply satisfying on every level. The setting is the private island of self-made billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) during the annual reunion party he throws for his five best friends. The theme of the gathering in his temple of conspicuous excess is solving his own murder (scripted by a world-famous author). Blanc, the world’s greatest detective, is delighted to be using his brain again after spending too much time in the bathtub during the pandemic that has put his brilliant mind on hold. He’s never met Bron, but the other guests owe him their professional and financial lives. The washed-up fashion model (Kate Hudson) with a propensity for sharing unintended ethnic slurs on social media who has found a second life as a fashion designer thanks to Bron’s investment; the former high-school science teacher (Leslie Odom, Jr.) finding professional fulfillment working for Bron’s company but battling Bron’s latest business move; the soccer-mom (Kathryn Hahn) turned governor thanks to Bron’s financial backing and feeling the strain of Bron’s none too subtle influence; the male-rights influencer (Dave Bautista) decrying the breastification of America and angling for a bigger outlet in Bron’s media empire to boost his sagging numbers but getting nowhere; and Bron’s former partner (Janelle Monáe), recently ousted from the company she co-founded with Bron thanks to some very shady legal moves.
It’s a classic set-up for a whodunit and Mr. Johnson honors the spirit of the genre in every particular. Everyone is a suspect, including the fashion designer’s harried assistant (Jessica Henwick) and the influencer’s befringed eye-candy of a girlfriend (Madelyn Kline). There are red herrings that revel in absurdity, yet there is never a clichéd moment in this visually resplendent story that constantly confounds its audience but never cheats them. Instead, it dazzles with dexterous dialogue and twists that play with our perceptions and make us delighted to be so deftly hoodwinked.
Craig once again, ahem, slays at Blanc. A brilliant mind with an unprepossessing demeanor that verges on a peculiar innocence. He plays the part to the hilt and without a trace of the irony that would throw the entire oeuvre off kilter. He also makes the best use of the word “buttress” in cinema history. I predict that it will never be topped.
Sharp, playful (the cameos are a thing of magic and wonder), and so fiendishly clever that it keeps the audience guessing until almost the last minute, GLASS ONION is more than a mere whodunnit. It’s a satire on society that leads us carefully by the hand to a stunning dénouement designed to jolt us like a thunderbolt. And it does. It also teaches us, just as carefully, to be ever so careful about what we wish for. Plus, it’s even better the second time.