Friday January 06, 2023
Movie Review: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)
If “Knives Out” was a beautiful fuck you to the xenophobic fears of the Trump base—the immigrant Latina gets everything, and the spoiled white children lose it all, and in the end she stares down at them from the patriarchal estate, now hers, holding the patriarchal coffee mug, now hers, while they stare up with the slow realization that the tables have turned, finally turned, forever—well, “Glass Onion” gives us another beautiful fuck you. It might even be a better fuck you, if that’s possible. It’s certainly more targeted. And incredibly well-timed.
Should I just say it? The fuck you is to the Elon Musks of the world. And we get it just as Elon Musk is revealing through mass ineptitude—buying and ruining Twitter—just how accurate Rian Johnson’s portrait of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is. At the end, when detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) tears into Bron, I was positively giddy with delight.
More, I thought. Pile it on.
The title plays into this, too. Bron names his Greek island estate “Glass Onion,” after the bar where they all worked back in the day, but he’s also the glass onion: seemingly many-layered and complex, but you can see right through him. You can see right into the emptiness of him.
Then there’s the Beatles’ song which plays over the closing credits. This line in particular:
Looking through the bent-backed tulips
To see how the other half lives
The movie is all about how the other half, the fabulously wealthy, live. And man are they idiots.
I told you ’bout the fool on the hill
The movie opens at the start of the pandemic, May 2020, with five people receiving puzzle boxes that require various steps to unlock. The result? An invitation to play a mystery game on Bron’s private Greek island. The five are:
- Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), a former model, now fashion designer
- Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the head scientist at Alpha, Bron’s corporation
- Duke (Dave Bautista), a men’s rights Twitch streamer and gun advocate
- Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), the governor of Connecticut who is running for U.S. Senate
- Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), who cofounded Alpha with Bron before being betrayed and ousted
The first four work together to solve the puzzle box, but I love how it’s actually Duke’s mom, chiming in from the background, and Yo-Yo Ma at Birdie Jay’s party, who give the clues to unlock the box.
A sixth box winds up at the home of Benoit Blanc, our only carryover from the first film, who is handling the pandemic poorly with multiple baths, and is being buoyed via Zoom call by his friends Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That’s a fun bit, even if not enough is done with it, and even though it’s sad to see that two of them have already left us.
Turns out Blanc was not invited to the party by Bron let's him stay for the “murder mystery” game. Bron says it’ll take all weekend: “I don’t want to toot my own horn,” he says, “but it’s pretty next level.”
So of course Blanc solves it before it even happens: Birdie Jay was going to be the culprit, the weapon was a harpoon, the clues were various. The cutting blow is when Blanc tells a totally deflated Bron that he enjoyed his little game, saying it was like “one of those mini-crosswords the Times has.”
But a murder-mystery movie requires a real murder, and other games are afoot. Bron is going public with Klear, a supposedly clean alternative fuel that others know is volatile and dangerous. Duke brings his girl, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), who cuckolds him with Bron. Birdie Jay’s sweatpants brand—doing gangbuster business during the pandemic—is continually threatened by her own dim-bulb self. She got booted from Twitter, claiming she didn’t know her word for cheap referred to Jews. (“Jewy?” her assistant asks incredulously. She also OK’ed her product being made in a Thai sweatshop because she thought that’s where you made sweatpants.
And all along periphery stalks Andi: isolated, accusatory, an ice princess. Related: On the island, behind layers of protection, Bron displays the Mona Lisa, the actual Da Vinci painting, on loan from the Louvre. (Since the Louvre is closed and France needs the money.) Bron has long been obsessed by it. He says he wants to be responsible for something that gets mentioned in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. “Is she happy, is she sad, is it something else?” he says. He could be describing Andi.
We assume Bron will be murdered since that’s the trope, and many have a reason to do so. But it’s Duke who gets it—drinking a poisoned cocktail. And just when the lights go out—a leftover from the mystery game Blanc already solved—Blanc meets up with Andi to ask if she has the one thing he needs to solve the case. Per the trope, that’s exactly when she's killed.
Rian Johnson keeps playing with the tropes. In an extensive flashback, we discover that this isn’t Andi but her twin sister Helen. Andi was killed a week earlier. It was Helen who got Blanc the invitation to the island since she wants him to solve her sister’s death. And Helen isn’t dead, either. My favorite trope of all: the notebook in the jacket pocket that stopped the bullet.
In the end, it was all about a napkin. Back in the day, Andi wrote her vision for what Alpha would become on a Glass Onion napkin, but Bron outmaneuvered her, all the others lied for him, and she was cut out of her own company. She’d only recently rediscovered the napkin, which would ruin them all, particularly Bron, so Bron killed her. Duke can place him at the scene, which is why Bron killed him. But the proof? The napkin? Bron destroys it. Bron wins again. Which is when Helen begins to destroy all the glass tchotchkes in Bron’s Glass Onion estate. She also uses Klear to create a fire. And the final blow? She engages the override Bron had installed so he could gaze at the Mona Lisa up close, rather than through layers of protective glass. Before Bron’s distraught eyes (and ours?), DaVinci’s masterpiece burns to nothing. “Your fuel of the future just barbecued the world's most famous painting, you dumbass,” Helen tells him. “You’re ruined. And you did get your wish—to forever be remembered in the same breath as the Mona Lisa.”
I tell you man he’s living there still
That’s the story, and it’s fun, though not as tightly constructed as the original. Craig’s Blanc seems less clear, somehow, more muddied. I doubt we really needed Birdie Jay’s assistant—she didn’t have much to do. Meanwhile, of the suspects, Odom Jr. and Hahn aren’t given much to do. Is Toussaint a real scientist? Is Claire a not-bad politician? No clue. The best of the suspects is Birdie Jay and Hudson make the most of her. I particularly like it when she says she can finally breathe again on the island—without the COVID mask—when we never saw her wear one in the first place.
But what I loved loved loved about “Glass Onion” is Blanc’s realization about Bron, and, by implication, all the billionaire Brons of the world:
His dock doesn't float. His wonder fuel is a disaster. His grasp of disruption theory is remedial at best. He didn’t design the puzzle boxes. He didn’t write the mystery. … Like everyone in the world, I assumed Miles Bron was a complicated genius. But why? Look into the clear center of this glass onion: Miles Bron is an idiot!
What a joy this series must be for Rian Johnson. I wonder if he lays in bed at night wondering, “OK, who can I fuck with next?”