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Thoughts on a Glass Onion

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By now I hope you’ve all had the opportunity to watch Rian Johnson’s sequel to his 2019 blockbuster Knives Out, either in movie theaters at the end of November, or on Netflix in the last few days. Glass Onion is, to my mind, even better than its predecessor. Much as I enjoyed Knives Out, I felt that once it had introduced the many and diversely annoying descendants of bestselling mystery author Harlan Thrombey, it did little to nothing with most of them. Glass Onion, in comparison, introduces a no less varied cast and gives each of them space to let their freak flag fly—Kate Hudson’s airheaded, cancellation-prone former model, Dave Bautista’s desperate right-wing shock jock, Kathryn Hahn’s harried politician, and, of course, Edward Norton’s billionaire techbro, on whose palatial island estate the entire story takes place. It does this while spinning a mystery no less convoluted and full of twists than the first film, and while managing to give more space to Daniel Craig’s delightful, silly-yet-deeply-principled detective, Benoit Blanc, revealing new details about his personal life and personality. Also, it is extremely funny.

So yes, if you haven’t seen Glass Onion yet, I urge you to do so, and then come back and read this post. I’m going to try to avoid the really big spoilers, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts about this film, how Johnson is developing the ideas of this series, and what the future holds for it and him.

First, I really love that Glass Onion is a pandemic story. More specifically, an early pandemic story, full of details that already seem dated like outdoor masking, homemade masks, sourdough starters, and bumping elbows instead of shaking hands. It’s a choice that feels like it’s thumbing its nose at people who would like to pretend the pandemic never happened, or that the measures we took to protect against it were merely mass hysteria. It also fits perfectly with Johnson’s Agatha Christie-derived plotting. What better excuse is there for an eccentric rich person to gather a disparate group of people for a weekend getaway on a private island than a raging pandemic? Which also means that Glass Onion dovetails Christie with “The Masque of the Red Death”, whose class themes have run through much of Johnson’s writing.

But the thing I most like about Glass Onion‘s early pandemic setting is how easily it uses the trappings of that period as a shorthand for its characters’ personalities. As we noted in the real world at the time, it’s pretty easy to tell who’s an asshole, or just full of their own self-importance, by whether or not they’re willing to wear a mask. Glass Onion gets a bit more granular with this—Bautista’s character, who makes much of his manliness and is later revealed to have sold fake nutritional supplements, doesn’t mask at all; Hudson wears a fishnet veil as a face covering, in keeping with an earlier scene in which she throws a raging house party but explains that the dozens of attendees are “in her pod”; Hahn masks, but can’t be bothered to keep her nose covered, an early hint that while she goes through the motions of responsibility and civic-mindedness, she doesn’t actually live up to those values. We get a powerful sense of each character’s foibles, and the specific type of self-deception they practice, from a simple costuming choice.

(Also, a question for the group: early in the film it’s implied that Norton’s character has a COVID vaccine, which he administers to his guests while keeping it secret from the rest of the world. Given what we learn about him by the end of the movie, is there any chance this vaccine is actually effective?)

Second, I feel like, even with all the praise this series has received for its handling of themes of class and inequality, Glass Onion isn’t getting enough credit. The conversation around it has mostly focused on its perfect timing in centering its story on a tech billionaire who has woven a myth of prophetic genius around himself, but who in reality achieved his wealth and status by stealing his partners’ ideas and then pushing them out of his companies; by spamming his underlings (here represented by Leslie Odom Jr. as Norton’s CSO) with half-baked ideas and letting them develop the ones that aren’t completely bonkers while taking all the credit; and by promising miracles while recklessly moving forward with untested technologies, blithely assuming that someone else—the government, the taxpayers—will clean up the mess.

What doesn’t come up so much in discussions of these movies is how much they’re both about the corrosive power of wealth, not just on the people who possess it but on those who are in its orbit. My biggest problem with Knives Out was that while it castigated Thrombey’s children and grandchildren for being corrupted by lifelong wealth, it treated him as a good, down-to-earth rich person. It never held him responsible for enabling his family’s corruption—by, for example, using his control of the purse-strings to micromanage their lives—and never stopped to consider that the corrosion of their morals and empathy might be ultimately down to his behavior. (It also assumed that Ana de Armas’s virtuous nurse would not be similarly corrupted by inheriting Thrombey’s wealth, though surely the only conclusion to be drawn from the film was that her children and grandchildren will be no better than his.)

Glass Onion gets the issue of the corrosive power of wealth out in the open early on, when it has Norton lament that he no longer has anyone around him who says no to him. But as we see from the people he chooses to surround himself with, he has no interest in actually being contradicted—Hahn and Odom are both using their positions to allow him to test a dangerous new energy source, despite their certain knowledge that it will cause mass death; and Hudson is going to take the fall for the abuse of employees in their shared sportswear brand. They’re all doing this because they owe their existence and success to him. As Janelle Monáe, playing Norton’s discarded business partner, says, they’re all sucking on the golden teat.

Unlike Knives Out, Glass Onion doesn’t spare either the source of the problem or its tributaries from its condemnation. Norton is not a poor little rich man trapped by his own power. And Hudson, Hahn et al are not victims of that power. You see this in particular in the film’s conclusion, in which Blanc proves the full extent of Norton’s perfidy. Even at that moment, the other characters won’t turn on him. He still, they reason, has enough power to get away with it, and none of them are willing to be the first person who turns on him. It’s only once Monáe does something drastic that attaches to Norton a crime that he can’t get away with—once she puts the stench of failure on him—that the others suddenly find their spines and consciences. As much as Glass Onion is being praised for capturing the pathology of people like Elon Musk, I’d say its greater accomplishment is the way it castigates the hangers-on of such people, refusing to see them as heroes when they finally, once it feels safe, do the right thing.

Third and lastly, I’m really curious to see what the success of this movie spells for Johnson’s future career. He’s an artist who has always flitted from one genre to another, from weird indie projects to blockbusters. Now he’s making a series that, as this film clearly demonstrates, could keep going for years. Another Knives Out sequel is already in the works for Netflix, but with how good Glass Onion has turned out to be, it’s hard to imagine the series stopping there. Is that what we should wish for, though? Johnson is doing a lot of valuable things with the Knives Out films—talking about the besetting flaws of our culture and class system in a way that is approachable to just about everyone, proving the viability of mid-budget filmmaking for adults, letting Daniel Craig have some fun for once, and just making good movies. But he’s also one of the most interesting filmmakers currently working, and I think it might be a shame if he confined himself to only one type of story. I guess we’ll see after Knives Out 3.

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