As the wise sage Shrek once taught us, “Onions have layers”—a phrase Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc repeatedly evokes in Rian Johnson’s rollicking sequel to the 2019 smash-hit Knives Out. And there are indeed layers to the homicide case in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. It’s one that’s called an unorthodox medley of so-called “disruptors” to the private Greek island of billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who hopes to delight them with Jared Leto’s new hard kombucha line—oh, and a murder mystery dinner. This time around, the layers are as easy to peel away as paper.
Among this VIP crew are Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), a scientist forever doomed to manage Miles’ whims; Claire (Kathryn Hahn), the high-strung governor of Connecticut; the supermodel-turned-entrepreneur Birdie (Kate Hudson), famous for “accidentally” tweeting racial epithets; Duke (Dave Bautista), a gamer whose Twitch streams have taken a turn for the alt-right; Duke’s girlfriend, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), not nearly as vapid as she seems; Peg (Jessica Henwick), Birdie’s beleaguered assistant; and Andi (Janelle Monáe), Miles’ former business partner, cast out due to a suspicious lawsuit. The premise that prompts them to converge in Greece is not particularly complicated: Miles has sent out one of his annual puzzle-box-turned-invitations, and one has somehow fallen into the hands of Benoit Blanc, the world’s most famous detective (unless you count Batman).
Once on the island, Benoit’s spidey sense begins to tingle thanks to the resentments shared between the friends, who met years ago at a bar known as The Glass Onion. Now, the ties holding them together are more political than affectionate. Miles has pulled strings for them and funded their escapades, a fact he’s all too happy to leverage as they party in his own Glass Onion, an enormous crystal ball-like enclosure at the top of his extravagant island fortress. There, Benoit solves Miles’ Gillian Flynn-authored murder case in a few minutes, ruining the billionaire’s plans for a weekend spent in deep detective work.
Thankfully, there’s another case for Benoit to crack, and this one has real-life stakes. After checking the Google Alerts on his phone during the party, Duke inadvertently takes a sip of Miles’ cocktail and collapses on the ground, dying moments later. The unexpected loss sends the party into hysterics, with Benoit suspecting foul play as the lights of the compound go out—a melodramatic flair Miles had originally concocted to coincide with the dinner. In the scramble of suspicions, the group pulls apart, and Benoit confronts Andi, the one with perhaps the plainest reason for trying to poison Miles: She’s bitter about being ousted from the tech company they founded together, the inconspicuously named Alpha. As the detective tries to assure Andi that everything will be made clear soon enough, a bullet zips through the shadows and strikes her through the chest.
It’s the kind of electric moment that makes or breaks a good mystery, made all the more delightful when we discover it’s a farce. A few clever flashbacks reveal that “Andi” is not Andi at all, but her identical twin sister, Helen. (In a lesser film and with a lesser actress, this tired trope would be irksome, but Monáe pulls it off with a wink.) We learn that the real Andi died of an apparent suicide, but since identifying her body, Helen hasn’t told the press—or the police—that she suspects someone killed her sister. Instead, she hires Benoit Blanc to uncover the culprit, though to do that the world’s greatest detective will need Helen to get her best improv act together. Dyeing her hair and slipping into Andi’s clothes, Helen accepts Miles’ invitation on Andi’s behalf and shows up in Greece using her twin’s affluent lilt.
Further flashbacks unfurl new layers: Everyone had a motive to want to kill Andi—and, by extension, Helen. We learn that Andi was ousted from Alpha after she refused to cooperate with Miles’ new plan to launch Klear, a hydrogen-based fuel he promises will transform the energy industry. Never mind that it’s absurdly dangerous; he, like his friends, is a disruptor. To force Andi out, Miles claims that the idea for Alpha was solely his, the plans for which he drafted on a napkin in The Glass Onion bar. One by one, Andi’s former friends adopt this lie as truth, swearing on the witness stand that they watched him sketch Alpha into being. Infuriated, Andi continues to search her home for the real napkin, the one she drew up in her own handwriting. Upon discovering it folded between the pages of a book, she emails a photograph of the evidence to her one-time Cheers squad. She knows it’s enough to ruin them all.
Sure enough, Andi’s former friends show up at her house one by one, eager to convince her to part with the red envelope holding that old, troublesome napkin. Helen suspects any one of them might have then slipped sleeping pills into Andi’s coffee, dragging her into the front seat of her running car in the garage, where she was later discovered dead. But Benoit recognizes that the easiest answer is often the most apparent. The onion might have lots of layers, but its center is as clear as, well…Klear. Miles is the one with the most to lose should the truth of his deception come to light, especially on the brink of launching his lucrative fuel.
And so Benoit makes quick work of the seemingly convoluted case: Miles drugged Andi and killed her, but sent her an invitation to his murder mystery party to cover up his knowledge of her death. When Helen showed up in Greece with the invite, he knew she had to be Andi’s sister; he then tried to shoot her after dinner to eliminate anyone who might suspect him. (A conveniently located, just-thick-enough notebook in her breast pocket saved Helen’s life.)
As for Duke, he was another unfortunate casualty of Miles’ less-than-bulletproof schemes. When the Google Alert on his phone revealed Andi’s death had leaked to the press, Duke—smarter than anyone, including this audience member, estimated—finally recognized the elaborate web around him. He saw Miles speeding away from Andi’s house when he himself went to rap on the Alpha co-founder’s door mere days ago. Upon reading the news of her death, Duke realizes Miles killed her; he then uses this knowledge to blackmail the blackmailer, insisting Miles promote him to a new position in Miles’ media enterprise, Alpha News.
But Miles is not about to let a men’s rights activist derail his company, and so he poisons Duke’s drink with an allergen (in this case, pineapple juice), then blames the guests for attempting to taint his glass instead. Miles would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for Benoit Blanc, as well as Helen’s uncanny habit for sniffing out incriminating evidence. She discovers the real Alpha napkin in Miles’ Glass Onion office, where he hid the envelope after nabbing it from Andi’s house. Miles swoops in to burn the napkin before she can take it to the police, but at this point Helen is furious—and Benoit has just the fuel to fan her flames.
Herein lies the true pleasure of Glass Onion: the simplicity of its resolution. As is all too often the case in life, the culprit—the villain—is the obvious one. But the joy of Glass Onion is not to be found in solving the case; it’s in witnessing what happens after the killer is caught.
In the tedium of the real-life justice system, we seldom read that a corrupt billionaire like Miles Bron receives his comeuppance. Even if he is pinned for a crime, rarely do we clock anything resembling real integrity once the lawyers get involved. And so there’s a startling relief in seeing Monáe’s Helen stalk about Miles’s compound, smashing his kitschy glass sculptures, obliterating his bar, destroying the Glass Onion from within. Her anger itself is fun (and justified), but it’s how she directs it that Glass Onion, as a film, proves its mettle. Benoit slips Helen a piece of Klear, famously explosive amongst fire and glass, and she tosses it into the belly of the Onion. The fortress erupts, and with it, the famous Mona Lisa that Miles had loaned from the Louvre. Could there be a more appalling, delicious metaphor?
At a surface level, Helen’s response is a tantrum. In reality, it’s a conviction: Miles can’t sell a product that just destroyed his own home, and the world’s most treasured painting. Even if he can still claim Alpha as his IP, Klear will never get off the ground; the business will implode. Miles is done, and his former friends recognize it. Finally, in spite of their serious shortcomings, they take Helen’s side. No longer will they lie in exchange for Miles’ favors.
The ending is clear-cut, even tidy. (If you prefer a side of mind-knots with your mystery, perhaps you found it too tidy.) But Johnson doesn’t make his mystery the point, and the joy at the heart of his resolution is too infectious for all but the greatest skeptics. The performances from the stacked cast are commendable; the kaleidoscope of genre references is its own invitation to return for another stay. Still, Glass Onion’s greatest asset is that it embraces imagination. As in real life, the billionaire is not nearly as charismatic or intelligent as he seems. As in real life, his inner circle is equally unscrupulous. From there, however, Glass Onion departs from reality, and indulges in the hyperbole so key to effective humor. In a world where actual justice feels so out of reach, there’s simple satisfaction in an explosive finale, one that throws back the curtain, scratches the veneer, shreds the onion. Finally, the reward: The glass house comes tumbling down.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books and fashion.