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Glass Onion and the American Con

The film’s themes are like its central conceit—painfully obvious and painfully facile

Ben Samuels
January 03, 2023
Edward Norton in ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’Netflix
Edward Norton in ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’Netflix

Near the end of the second act in Glass Onion, Rian Johnson’s Netflix-sponsored sequel to his wildly successful 2019 murder mystery Knives Out, Daniel Craig’s character sits on a dock in Greece, running through suspects. Helen, the twin sister of the victim, draws a table in her notebook with each of their names.

“Hey,” she says, “you must be really great at Clue!”

“I’m very bad at dumb things,” says Craig, angrily.

Craig, along with a group of friends that a fourth grader might imagine represent the loci of power in America (a scientist, a politician, a right-wing Twitch streamer), are invited to the private island of their friend, a billionaire named Miles Bron (Ed Norton). Bron, a hodgepodge of unpopular tech figures like Elon Musk, Elizabeth Holmes, and Sam Bankman-Fried, co-founded Alpha, a tech company involved in things like “machine learning” and “crypto scalability.”

His co-founder, Cassandra (Janelle Monae), has also been invited to the island. But about a third of the way through, the movie rewinds, showing us that the woman on the island is not Cassandra but her twin sister, Helen, who has infiltrated the group with Craig’s help to investigate the death of her sister. Craig immediately rules out Bron as a suspect, since he had just concluded a very public lawsuit to cut her out of the company. For Bron to have killed her, he says repeatedly, would have been “too stupid.”

But Bron is in fact very stupid, and—as it turns out—did kill Cassandra. The point of the movie is drilled in with building frenzy: the Musk-Holmes-Fried hydra is not evil or edgy; they are stupid people who become incredibly rich because no one tells them no, or because they rip off the ideas of talented minorities, or some combination thereof. The proof is in a number of gaffes which Bron commits and Craig lists back at him dramatically at the end of the movie: He said “infraction” instead of “inflection,” mistook the Aegean for the Ionian Sea, and so on.

The idea is kind of alluring: If Sam Bankman-Fried is an idiot, it means the people he fooled in Silicon Valley and Washington must have been even worse idiots. The complicated technological terms involved in “machine learning” or “crypto scalability” are a sham to distract us from what is at the center of the massively successful companies run by our contemporary masters of reality, i.e., nothing. As Craig sagely observes, the massive glass palace at the center of the island—the glass onion—is an apt metaphor. What seems layered is empty. What seems complicated is clear.

But where the moral simplicity of Knives Out gave the film a charming earnestness, in Glass Onion it feels depressing. It could be that Janelle Monae plays Helen more cautiously than Ana de Armas played Marta, the Cuban caretaker heroine in Knives Out. The movie’s climax comes when Helen burns the actual Mona Lisa—which is a little abrupt and feels narratively gratuitous, all the more because it seems out of character.

The climactic scene of destruction, culminating in the explosion of the glass onion itself, doesn’t make sense as an act of vengeance. For one thing, Helen doesn’t seem particularly upset by the death of her sister. And it’s not at all clear how Miles—rather than she—will necessarily take the fall for the destruction of the island complex and the explosion of the experimental hydrogen gas which powered it. The explosion of the island doesn’t read as a populist victory over the rich, since none of the guests on the island are particularly sympathetic or particularly middle-class-seeming, let alone poor. Instead, the audience is expected to glory in another repetition of the movie’s original point about billionaires and their unbelievable stupidity: In the end, all their glass castles will be blown apart and their art will burn.

But what are Miles Bron’s failings, exactly? Not murder: Morality and “crypto scalability” are layers of the glass onion that the movie exhorts us to see through. Yet Craig’s final speech must repeat the word stupid half a dozen times. Miles Bron fails to kill his third target, which is stupid of him; the fact that he kills his second with pineapple juice (the victim is allergic) is “so, so stupid.” “It’s so stupid, it’s genius!” shrieks one of his friends. “No!” bellows Craig. “It’s just stupid!” The accusations feel pedantic in a creepy way, as if the harangue was given by Hannah Arendt; the schoolmarmish flashbacks to each of Bron’s grammatical errors make it worse. Whose idea of evil is this, anyway?

Glass Onion ultimately feels disingenuous and fake because the film’s surface populist rhetoric is part of a con to distract viewers from the film’s actual emotional motivations. This is not a film that seeks to explore or exploit the yawning social gaps or tensions between megawealthy billionaires and “the people” they are supposedly stealing from. Rather, it’s a film about tensions within a single unified social milieu, where billionaires mingle with friends and servants who cauterize their roiling envy and resentment by secretly imagining themselves to be superior to their “stupid” patrons.

Notably, the contrast we are given to Bron’s stupidity is quite scarce. All we have are Craig’s displays of deduction, delivered in his hokey Southern accent. What makes the displays seem convincing is the movie’s odd structuring—the rewind that occurs a third of the way through, revealing that the scenes we saw the first time through were edited, redacted, and chopped up. The changing premises deliberately makes it impossible to follow the deduction. We are reduced to admirers, his logic to a spectacle. The only kind of moral sophistication which the characters are able to display comes at the very end, when they all vow to affirm Helen’s account of the night. They, like we, have been reduced to spectators.

Which, in the end, is all the movie expects of us. The explosion of the glass onion at the end of the film is ostentatious and meaningless, both morally and dramatically—the same trick that the billionaires are accused of pulling on all of us. That’s because this is an insider’s movie being sold to outsiders, gratifying the resentments of the insiders against their even wealthier peers while pulling the exact same tricks to sell tickets to the rubes, who are supposed to side with the less successful successful people, because, well, that’s how tickets are sold. Everything’s a con.

“There’s got to be some good glass songs,” Rian Johnson recalls thinking. “Glass fortress? Glass castle? Glass man?”

We, the audience, are supposed to take that lying down, like we’ve taken everything else, even as the score of the movie, which has been stings from “Moonlight Sonata,” becomes, abruptly, “Glass Onion,” by the Beatles.

They’re stupid—we’re stupid—it’s all stupid.

Benjamin Samuels is a student at Deep Springs College