September 18, 2022

Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Glass Onion” & “Pearl”


GLASS ONION (Netflix – November 4 in theaters, December 23 online):  After Rian Johnson’s Knives Out broke through to become one of the increasingly few non-IP-based mainstream hits in the market ($311.6M worldwide), Netflix moved aggressively to buy out the franchise, reportedly paying $450M for the next 2 crime-solving adventures of detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).  Glass Onion is the first result of that deal, and while its production budget hasn’t been made public, it’s clearly been made on a far more expansive scale than the original movie.  The question is whether that’s altogether a good thing.  While Knives Out was inspired by Agatha Christie-ish manor house mysteries, Glass Onion is a riff on The Last of Sheila, the cult-classic puzzler written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins.  (Sondheim, who died in late 2021, even contributed a cameo to the film.)  As in Sheila, a rich and powerful “friend” invites some of his oldest associates to join him in a glamorous location (here a private island off the coast of Greece) to play a brain-teaser game that will entertain him while underscoring his power over the group he’s assembled.  It’s supposed to revolve around a fictional murder, but of course things quickly turn real.  Glass Onion supplies the requisite A-level cast, with Edward Norton as the obnoxious host, and a guest list that includes Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monae, Kathryn Hahn, and Leslie Odom, Jr.  The extended set-up of Glass Onion is a lot of fun, but Johnson’s script somewhat loses its way in the second half.  Unlike in Knives Out (or for that matter The Last of Sheila), Glass Onion comes to feel like an exercise in twistiness with little emotion for its murder and suspects, some noticeable lapses in logic, and a lack of memorable wit.  And while Knives Out kept its proportions limited and tidy, Johnson seems to have felt the need to turn Glass Onion into a spectacle, with a finale that overwhelms the murder mystery at its core.  None of this is to say that there’s no fun to be had in Glass Onion:  Craig and several other cast members (especially Monae) are a pleasure, and the early twists are highly enjoyable.  But bigger and broader isn’t always better, and Glass Onion loses some of the the unforced touch that made its predecessor such a delight.

PEARL (A24 – now playing):  Ti West’s prequel to X, which only opened last March, was greenlit while X was still in production, and shot back-to-back in large part on the same locations.  (X was no blockbuster, with $14.5M worldwide, but it had such a miniscule production and marketing budget that creating a mini-franchise made financial sense.)  In many ways, though, X and Pearl are quite different.  In X–spoiler alert–it was eventually revealed that the elderly couple that had rented out their property to a grungy porn-movie crew in the 1970s were the ones murdering them one by one, with the mastermind being the wife (Mia Goth, who also played Maxine, the porn actress “last girl” of the story).  Late in X, Maxine discovered that the old lady had had show business ambitions of her own, and Pearl (co-written by West and Goth) goes back to 1918 to tell that story.  While the aesthetics of X were very much modeled after Texas Chainsaw Massacre-era horror, Pearl has a different look and feel, with super-saturated color from cinematographer Elliot Rockett, and a sweeping score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams that evoke the melodramas of Douglas Sirk.  While X was an ensemble piece, Goth is at the (very) dead center of Pearl, and despite Pearl being a psychotic killer, the movie has some sympathy for her frustrations and resulting fury, and West gives her performance room to embrace those contradictions.  With its lack of jump scares and old-movie tone, Pearl may in the end not be enough of a conventional horror movie for genre fans.  But West and Goth aren’t done:  A24 has already greenlit MaXXXine, which will return Goth to her other X role, this time in the VHS-driven porn world of 1980s LA.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."