Talent can be a blessing and a curse. In the seventeen years since his micro-budget neo-noir Brick took home the Special Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, writer and director Rian Johnson has become a household name, an Academy Award nominee, and a multi-millionaire. This point where talent and success converge is the true measure of any mainstream filmmaker.
His fourth, and best, feature was Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), a film that cost 317 million dollars and made more than four times its budget. However, the thrill of seeing a mainstream movie that combines both reverence toward its predecessors and its revision was offset by the singularly exhausting and vitriolic discourse cycle it set into motion.
While most filmmakers would shrink away from such public scrutiny, Johnson doubled down. His steadfast refusal to compromise on personality and vision is an admirable trait in any filmmaker, but this can backfire when they’re no longer working within a franchise’s constraints –– endearing brashness can morph all too easily into hubris.
This unstable form of confidence permeates Knives Out (2019); to his haters, it’s a middle-finger, but to his fans, it’s a victory lap for a race he hasn’t officially won. Johnson’s sequel Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery — which premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — is as perversely satisfying as it is perversely self-satisfied, and a classic case of a promising artist spectacularly, though hopefully not finally, collapsing under the weight of their runaway success.
The central metaphor of its title — borrowed from The Beatles’ 1968 song of the same name — is rich and enticing, not to mention amusing, in its mismatched symbolism; “onion” connotes a panoply of inwardly successive layers, but “glass” undercuts the promise of mystery with transparency, even if — as is made clear through some cheeky lateral tracking shots — glass can distort as much as it reveals.
You don’t need me to explain it, though, because world-famous detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, does so extensively and repeatedly. It’s a waste of potential that’s also emblematic of Johnson’s lack of trust in –– and even condescension to –– his audience; he tediously spells out all the obvious symbols in his puzzle box, holding our hand through every rug pull and reveal.
Glass Onion has all the same self-defeating tendencies as its predecessor, but in typical Johnson fashion, they’re even more pronounced and manifold.
On paper, Knives Out is an objective marvel of narrative architecture, weaving numerous crime-film traditions and literary and cinematic reference points into its constantly-shifting framework –– one that falters, and ultimately collapses, when a limp, discourse-ready social satire is superimposed over top of it.
Glass Onion is mostly a reshuffling of the previous pieces in Knives Out. Johnson swaps a family business pulled apart by avarice and bad politics for tech billionaire Miles Bron, played by Edward Norton, who seemingly pulled his circle of friends up the economic ladder along with him.
Once again, each member of the cast works to salvage their broad, if aptly tailored, caricature — Kathryn Hahn plays a weaselly politician, Kate Hudson plays an insensitive celebrity model, and Dave Bautista plays a gun-toting Twitch streamer, to name a few. It also becomes clear, through a mid-film twist that serves the same structural purpose as the one in Knives Out, that yet another plucky, marginalized woman, this time played by Janelle Monáe, will anchor the film’s thematic arc, a move that came across as obliviously tokenizing in the film’s predecessor, but now seems curiously calculated.
Once Monáe enters the scene, however, things pick up for about an hour; scenes are replayed from different perspectives, Craig and Monáe generate intrigue through their repartee, and a power outage gives Johnson the chance to milk a rotating lighthouse beam for all it’s worth.
Johnson’s skills are more conceptual than formal, but he’s certainly got visual flourish to spare, playing around with cross-cutting, rhythmic and jarring insert shots, split-screens, and his trademark pull-backs. He also has a much better sense for blocking and composition than your average filmmaker, but his stylistic tics rarely amount to more than gimmicky confection, and wear increasingly thin throughout the two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
‘Confection’ –– as much a term of endearment as it is derision –– could very well characterize this whole enterprise, and Johnson plays this up to varying effect. His aesthetics and scenarios are proudly histrionic, and his narratives so ludicrously over-designed –– with a dizzying plethora of concurrent and convergent setups and payoffs –– that a character plainly asks Blanc to explain the plot to them. During a late-film revelation, Kate Hudson’s character stammers out: “It’s so dumb, it’s genius,” to which Blanc responds: “No, it’s just dumb.”
Such moments –– as well as a winking likening of Johnson to both Craig and Norton’s characters –– ostensibly poke fun at Johnson’s authorial hand, only serve to inversely place him on the auteur pedestal.
The Last Jedi is great because it was made in earnest by a relative outsider whose idiosyncrasies could put a new spin on a worn-out formula. Glass Onion, which draws upon a fresher formula with tongue planted firmly in cheek, ends up talking down to its audience precisely because Johnson has ‘made it’ in showbiz but still sees himself as the underdog.