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Rian Johnson’s ‘Knives Out’ Sequel Is Another Twisty Delight [TIFF]

Jan 5, 2023

Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion” kicks off with a giddily entertaining opening: It’s May 2020, the early days of covid, and several old friends receive, one after the other, a box. It comes from their friend Miles Braun, the eccentric tech billionaire, and it’s an elaborate puzzle box; they get each other on the phone (in a series of playful introductions and dizzily frame-slicing split-screens) and figure out how to solve the puzzle of each level, before landing on the box’s ultimate contents: an invitation to a long weekend on his private island off Greece. But then the box lands in front of its fifth recipient, who picks up a hammer and smashes it to pieces quickly and efficiently.
It’s a funny payoff — and also, on reflection, a clever preview of Johnson’s methodology for the entire film, the sequel to his 2019 hit “Knives Out” that manages to recapture the magic of that picture without resorting to replication or imitation. It feels, frankly, like something of a miracle.
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Braun (played with scenery-chewing gusto by Edward Norton) isn’t just inviting his friends to his island for a weekend of relaxation; he’s offering them a chance to solve “the mystery of my murder,” his latest idea for the annual getaway of this group of longtime pals and hangers-on: his right-hand man (Leslie Odom Jr.), a politician (Kathryn Hahn), a model-turned-entrepreneur (Kate Hudson), her assistant (Jessica Henwick), an influencer (Dave Bautista), and his girlfriend (Madelyn Cline). And accompanying them are Cassandra (Janelle Monáe), Braun’s one-time business partner with whom he recently cut ties, and the first new guest in eight years: Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the world’s greatest detective.  
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And so we have your classic, Agatha Christie-style cast of disparate characters, with one thing in common: they all owe him, to various degrees, for their success. It puts them all at his beck and call for an event like this — but as Blanc realizes, when contemplating the murder mystery game’s real-life implications, it also gives them a fine reason to want to bump him off. “For at least one person on this island, this is not a game,” Blanc declares, so once characters and relationships have been established, conflicts have been sharpened, and McGuffins have been introduced, Johnson skillfully, tensely builds up to the murder, and then…
Well. That’s where we’ll stop. But it’s worth noting that what seems, initially, like a far more conventional narrative structure than the ingenious leap-in-and-backtrack of the first act of “Knives Out” instead becomes a magnificent bait-and-switch; writer/director Johnson brilliantly figures out a way to turn his story and his main character, inside out. Part of what made that first film’s success so exciting was that it was the rarest of beasts, a genuine hit that got that way through enthusiastic word-of-mouth rather than exploitation of an existing property. That achievement made the very idea of a “Knives Out” sequel seem slightly deflating — but to this credit, Johnson is drawing on a variation here, making something that owes less to “Ten Little Indians” than “The Last of Sheila” (with a cute little shout-out to the latter for good measure). His new film activates the same pleasure centers as the first, but he varies his style and execution enough to avoid repetition — and, more importantly, to work on its audience in a different (but still affecting) way.
The picture is splendidly cast — everyone in it is doing what they do well (and seems to have had a great time in the process) — and Craig remains a sturdy rock for the franchise, finding delightful comic variations on the character without slipping into clownery. Johnson’s regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin thankfully dodges the ugly, monochromatic flatness of so many Netflix originals; it’s bright, sharp, and colorful, filled with striking hero shots and elegant group compositions. Editor Bob Ducsay (also a Johnson regular) keeps things moving at a nice clip, and as with the original, Jenny Eagen’s costuming is tip-top.
But the marvel here, the glue that keeps it together, is Johnson’s witty script, written with such tick-tock precision and so meticulously thought-through (and through, and through) that it becomes thrilling just to watch it work, to witness the dexterity with which he’s winding this thing up and letting it spin. It’s not unusual for a protagonist to stand in for a director, and that’s certainly the case here — by the end, we’re invested in the story, but we’re also dying to see how both Benoit Blanc and Rian Johnson are going to get us out of this thing. In “Glass Onion,” the filmmaker shows absolute mastery of his genre and his craft. It’s pure pop pleasure. [A]
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