Johnson: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Glass Onion isn’t exactly a sequel to Knives Out so much as the start of a new Netflix franchise, each instalment of which will presumably follow private investigator Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, from one elaborate crime scene to the next. For that reason, it’s quite different from the original, and in some ways a commentary on it, as writer-director Rian Johnson reassesses exactly what he wants the legacy of this franchise to involve. To that end, Glass Onion fuses two very different styles of cinema, one quite traditional, and the other quite contemporary. The traditional ingredient is the country house murder mystery, a subgenre that tends to focus on ingenuity, intelligence and elaborate narrative architecture more than regular suspense. Exposition is the central spectacle of this mode, culminating with the operatic reveal, in which the detective explains how every piece of the puzzle fits into place. While this kind of cinema has become popular again as an antidote to the porosity of digital streaming, it can easily become inert, as tends to occur in Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot films, and so requires a great deal of formal creativity in order to remain relevant and fresh.

That’s where the second and more contemporary style of cinema comes in – what might be described as the pandemic wealth satire. Over the last few years, there has been a swathe of films and television series, such as The White Lotus, The Menu and Triangle of Sadness – that mock the ultra-wealthy abroad. All of these texts reference the pandemic, and all of them revolve around the kinds of people who could afford to travel safely during covid; people who were able to extricate themselves almost entirely from the claustrophobia and constriction of lockdown. As a result, this wave of pandemic satires also tends to oscillate between the chamber dramas of lockdown and the broader horizons of luxury travel. This is the class threshold of covid, which has reframed the relation between space and wealth – the richer the character, the more expansive their vistas – in a new and particularly pointed manner. Glass Onion takes the country house murder mystery of Knives Out and inflects it more in this direction, by way of a scientist (Leslie Odom Jr.), a politician (Kathryn Hahn), a celebrity (Kate Hudson), a Twitch streamer (Dave Bautista) and a teacher (Janelle Monáe) who are invited to an exclusive weekend at the island home of Miles Bron (Edward Norton), a tech innovator. All of this starts against the backdrop of the late pandemic era, which is when the film was shot, before projecting us to a post-covid paradise once we get to Miles’ hermetically sealed island.

First and foremost, that combination of traditional and contemporary cues provides Craig with a post-Bond (or Bond-adjacent) franchise. With No Time To Die released a year ago, the very future of the Bond universe up for debate, and at least two more Knives Out films in the works, Glass Onion feels like part of a gradual devolution of the monolithic Bond saga into a more diffuse set of semi-franchises, which also include Guy Ritchie’s upcoming Operation Fortune: Ruse du Guerre, whose double-barrelled name, like that of Glass Onion, evokes a franchisable energy that has emerged following the death of the last James Bond. Time and again, Glass Onion revels in Bond-like moments, beats and tics where Benoit almost seems to glimpse the origin of his character in Ian Fleming’s universe – whether it’s the shock of recognition when he sees a vintage car displayed on a plinth in Miles’ home, or the Bond-like shot of Whiskey, the Twitch streamer’s girlfriend, played by Madelyn Cline, rising nymph-like from a swimming pool in an echo of Halle Berry in Die Another Day. Yet Glass Onion also plays more pointedly with the Bond world, presenting Miles in peaceful and unremarkable cohabitation with his husband Phillip, played by Hugh Grant, reminding us that Craig has full license to play a gay character now that he’s traversed the ultra-heteronormativity of 007.

That sense of play percolates the entire film, which plays as an exercise in formalism, an eclectic choreography that is foreshadowed by a prologue in which each of the guests receives an invitation to the party in the form of an elaborate puzzle box. Part of this box involves a fugue, “a beautiful musical puzzle based on one melody” that discloses hidden structures when layered on top of itself. The recursive quality of the fugue, and of the puzzle box, become ciphers for the ingenuity of the film as a whole, which Johnson often figures in the same musical terms. In one of the most memorable scenes, we meet Benoit on a Zoom call about the interactive game Among Us, with Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim, whose presence promises an eccentric orchestration to come, especially since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also on the call, supplementing the rhythms of music with those of basketball. The very title of the film, and the structure named after it on Miles’ island, also harkens back to a pivotal moment in John Lennon’s emerging experimentalism – one of the first points where we can catch a glimpse of the full-on formalism of The White Album, a clear predecessor here.

However, we see this formalist element most dramatically in the central concept of the film – a murder mystery weekend party. Norton hasn’t appeared in much over the last decade, so it feels right that he marks his return to cinema by playing a parody (or perhaps just an accurate representation) of the notoriously obnoxious tech disruption that has occupied most of his recent creative energy. While some critics have pointed out the clear similarities between Miles Bron and Elon Musk (even the names sound like vague homonyms), this is first and foremost Norton playing Norton, in yet another iteration of the film’s recursive formalist style. No surprise, then, that Miles understands disruption itself in formalist terms, as an exercise in “breaking more things, bigger things, and then the thing nobody wants you to break.” Right from the outset, Johnson’s own formalism is bound up with, and complicit in, Miles’ project, but the only character who sees this is Helen, the teacher played by Monáe, who smashes the invitation box rather than deigning to allow it to condescend to her with its self-appointed formalist brilliance, before ushering in a drastic new cultural order at the end.

Before we get to that point, however, Glass Onion dramatically develops and even departs from the spatial scheme of the original film. Back then, we were presented with a literal house, comprised of one embedded interior after another; rooms within rooms, and spaces within spaces, that evoked an infinite recursion of chambered drama. All the logistics of that house are contained in the wooden box that serves as the invitation to Miles’ party, a miniature building in itself that forces the film to follow suit with a suite of elaborate geometric split screens that vanish as soon we actually arrive at Miles’ island. For the country house, and contained space more generally, have lost much of their cosiness in the wake of the pandemic, while the class struggle brought out by the pandemic has galvanised around the threshold between constrained and open space, between cosiness and expansive glare.

We see this new kind of space in the Glass Onion, a building that Miles has commissioned and constructed in the middle of his island. This is just what is sounds like – an enormous spherical structure composed of multiple layers of glass that both flood it with light and shape that light into an infinite number of permutations and reticulations. Accompanied by an “hourly dong” composed by Philip Glass, and framed by crystal sculptures that rise from the water to greet guests, it’s a space that is just constrained enough to make its expansiveness all the more luxurious, always reminding its occupants of the thresholds it has traversed in creating a structure without any apparent thresholds. Everything partakes of this same glassy containment, whether it’s the miniature crystal figures on Miles’ desk, the crystal replicas of iconic sculptures in the main display area, or the elaborate lighting scheme that renders it even more glittering at night, even more preciously and precariously poised between the need to contain and the need to expand, at the precise threshold of pandemic class relations.

In other words, the Glass Onion is a fantasy of open space during the pandemic, which is a constant point of reference here, as it is in most other films and television series in this mode. At the jetty on the mainland, Benoit and the guests, are forced to have a mouth injection, and while the exact nature of this procedure is never disclosed to them, it seems to be a cutting-edge covid technology, since it means there is no need for masks once they arrive on the island, which has remained a virus-free zone for the entire pandemic. In fact, covid has only expanded Miles’ glassy empire, prompting him to help the Louvre to defray the costs of lockdown by spending millions to borrow the Mona Lisa for his own private pleasure. Most of that money, he explains, has gone towards the state-of-the-art glass casing that is used to protect the painting, which sits in pride of place overlooking his crystal sculptures. Miles actually sees the Mona Lisa itself as a work of glass in spirit, marvelling at how Leonardo managed to remove all trace of brushstrokes, and polish the surface of his painting to such an extent, that it became impossible to discern the object of La Gioconda’s gaze. The glassy inscrutability of the painting thus collapses into his own glassy inscrutability, suggesting that we have reached some infraction point – as he puts it – between capital and cultural capital.

Finally, beneath the watchful gaze of the Mona Lisa, Miles announces that the pandemic has given him time to condense this glassy miasma into “the future,” which he reveals in the form of a clump of what appears to be unformed glass, or unrefined crystal, but turns out to be a piece of solid hydrogen fuel, derived directly from seawater. According to Myles this product, which he labels Klear, produces zero emissions, and is cheap and economical to produce. In a final twist, he tells his guests that the entire Glass Onion is run on this crystalline chunk of hydrogen, and that they are part of an experiment to prove how effectively it can be used. In other words, the Glass Onion is an extrapolation, both industrially and aesthetically, from a translucent fragment of energy that Myles insists has the capacity to change the whole world.

By this stage, the Glass Onion is less a formal motif than a figure for formalism itself that mutates and permutates across the narrative, embedding itself further and further in the nested spaces it enfigures. There is no way to distinguish the formal ingenuity of the franchise from that of Miles Bron, and the tech bros he represents, which is perhaps why Johnson resorts to two “stupidly” anticlimactic denouements, rather than the grand revelation we’ve come to expect from, say, Hercule Poirot. The first of these occurs mere seconds after Miles unfolds the premise of his murder mystery party. No sooner has he announced his own “murder,” and given the guests the weekend to solve it, than Benoit gets the answer straight away, and even intuits the figurative role that glass plays in Miles’ narcissistic scheme. Despite the fact that Miles “hired Gillian Flynn to write the whole thing,” Benoit draws a link between a crossbow planted in a glass sculpture, and a diamond concealed in a locket around his host’s neck, and in doing so somewhat demystifies the structure and address of the Glass Onion itself, as “an object that seems densely layered…when in reality the centre is in plain sight.”

Having reduced this scheme to so much bathos, Johnson shifts to a second act that explicitly questions whether the formalism of the film is complicit in Miles’ own architecture of power. This is ushered in by a chaotic complication of the glass motifs, which are refracted and denatured in the vacuum left by Benoit’s effortless solution of the crime. It starts with Duke, the streamer played by Bautista, dying on the spot, after drinking from the wrong glass, and intensifies when it turns out that the police are unable to come to the island to investigate, since Miles’ crystal dock is only accessible during low tide. Moments later, all the lights shut out, as a set piece in the original murder mystery game, leaving only the lighthouse to illuminate the Glass Onion, which it transforms into a giant prism, full of distorted confabulations of light and shade. The crystalline structures that calibrated containment and expansiveness so beautifully in the first act now disrupt any sense of coherent space, retrojecting the guests back into the incoherence of the pandemic, while Miles’ crystal elegance turns grating, especially the glass panel over the Mona Lisa, which slams up and down, over and over, somehow triggered by the activity on Duke’s phone following his death.

Figuratively, then, the start of this second act smashes the finely wrought crystalline structures of Miles’ world, tearing apart what seems like the robust atomic structure of the Glass Onion for a crisis that starts at the molecular level, but soon expands to global proportions, like the chunk of solid hydrogen that powers and propels it all. The rest of the second act continues this dismantling process by displacing the endless reticulations of the Glass Onion into a nested sequence of flashbacks that centre Helen, Monáe’s character, as a counterpoint to Miles’ formalist ingenuity. In contrast to the almost suffocating “cleverness” of the first act, space and suspense now come alive, as Helen interrogates the formalist scheme – the “reality distortion field” – of the Glass Onion. The film also starts to breathe here, as Helen, in tandem with Benoit, uncovers more of the property, bounces off one incidental connection after another, and leans into moments of serendipitous exchange, all of which build a new immersive fluidity. Like the moment when the fugue returns to itself, this is less a second act than a second version of the film, replayed now as scepticism, and anchored in Helen’s contrapuntal approach to space, which disrupts Miles’ elaborate orchestrations as emphatically as Monáe herself has disrupted the worlds of rnb and hip hop.

While this produces a symphony of information with Helen at the centre of it all, Glass Onion once again revels in stupidity for its “real” denouement, resisting Miles’ formalist ingenuity to the last. Together, Helen and Benoit decide that the obvious solution is the correct one – namely, that Miles only set up the party to kill Duke (for reasons that unfold during the third act) and then extemporised when Benoit solved the murder mystery party earlier than expected. Miles isn’t even original in his improvisation, though, since he got the idea for poisoning Duke from an offhand comment of Benoit’s, leaving no space for even the most residual cleverness as the film draws to its close: “It’s so dumb it’s brilliant!” “No, it’s just dumb.” Accordingly, Helen responds with a proportionately “dumb” gesture, encouraging the guests to literally smash all of Miles’ crystal objects, and then set the middle of the Glass Onion on fire, before throwing the hydrogen chunk into the mix, and demonstrating its true destructive potential, in a flame that leaves the main characters alive, but consumes the Mona Lisa. And that destruction of the old world order, in all its intelligence, ingenuity, and “cleverness,” is the final note of Glass Onion, as well as an intriguing next step in building a franchise that seems to be moving further and further away from the manifesto of Knives Out.

About Billy Stevenson (848 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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