Daniel Craig as gentleman sleuth Benoit Blanc.
Through a Glass Onion dimly
January 26, 2023
The recent film “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” feels like Agatha Christie with a good measure of modern snark added. Its characters are vivid and played by a host of great actors, anchored by the once James Bond, Daniel Craig, who clearly relishes his role as the Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc. Blanc sounds more like Foghorn Leghorn than the Looney Tunes character himself, however, it is all part of the fun of this film, an emerging franchise by writer and director Rian Johnson. In the first “Knives Out” film, Blanc moved through the sleuthing, observing the multiple suspects, and then cracked the mystery of a family patriarch’s death in a locked room.
The sequel “Glass Onion” takes place in May 2020, mostly on the private Grecian island home (lair?) of the fabulously wealthy Miles Bron (Edward Norton). By way of a multi-level puzzle box, Bron invites several friends to his island and suggests it will be to solve his own murder in a sort of campy murder mystery weekend. The guests are longtime acquaintances of Bron’s, though as the film peels back the layers, each guest has ties that point to their potential motives to be aggrieved with Bron to the point of making the murder mystery weekend homicidal.
Blanc’s arrival creates a mystery in itself: he wasn’t invited. Yet the puzzle box arrives on his doorstep just the same as the others. Again, Blanc moves among the guests, his fame as a detective thought to be another of Bron’s indulgences. Who else but Miles Bron would add a well-known detective to the hokum of a murder mystery weekend?
The friends invited to the island have made some modicum of success: a fashion designer, a tech wizard, the Governor of Connecticut, and a big player in social media, and the surprise attendance of another member of the friend group (Janelle Monae), who has grown estranged from them, especially from Bron. Two extra guests accompany the friends: a personal assistant and a girlfriend. As a result, several suspects are under Blanc’s gaze once the murder mystery turns into reality.
The twist of the film reminds us that an onion has many, many layers and yet the core, when uncovered, may not be what you expect. I will leave a lot of the plot’s mechanics for the viewer to discover, though again, a trope of murder mysteries is highly respected here: nothing is as it seems.
The main architectural feature on the island is the Glass Onion towering above. The engineering wonder purports to show a clear view of everything, yet a murder mystery depends on some things being “in plain sight” while some details might be red herrings. As the film progresses, what the viewers believe is “the” story will twist around as more detail is added, and you realize the first part of the film misdirected us, though not with as much opaqueness as we might believe.
In retrospect, Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion” is a reminder of how far we have come (or devolved) as a global society over the past three years. As the “Knives Out” sequel unfolds, the greater mystery of social inequity and the people who thrive on fast fame and ill-gotten gain is along for the ride.
Inside its interior, the Glass Onion reflects Bron’s high privilege and wealth. Most notably, he “convinced” the French to loan him the Mona Lisa painting while the suddenly cash-strapped Louvre was closed for the pandemic. To Bron, it is another exclusive achievement, not a cultural treasure.
Setting “Glass Onion” in 2020 allows audiences to look back at a short time ago that the pandemic has made seem long, long ago. Prior to boarding the boat taking them to the island, each guest receives an aerosolized medication that they are assured now leaves them perfectly free to roam and mingle without need of protective masks. The polite non-answer of Bron’s staff about the nature and origin of this treatment leaves you with the thought the super-rich have access to COVID treatment long before the general global population.
Worth a giggle on one level as each guest flinches from the unpleasant administration of this mystery medicine, it also serves as a building critique of how out of touch these characters are in their wealth and fame. No guilt seems to cross their privileged minds that they may have been inoculated against what the rest of the world (in May 2020) was desperately trying to solve.
This sort of subtle indictment pervades the film. From the Mona Lisa on display to a vanity one-of-a-kind sports car on the island, despite nowhere really to drive it, the wealthy elites seem to have no worries or need for the rest of us, content in their Onion-shaped bubble.
In retrospect, “Glass Onion” is a reminder of how far we have come (or devolved) as a global society over the past three years. We dealt with the trauma and disruption of a global pandemic, concurrent with headlines of the super-rich competing to be the first to launch their commercial space flights before one another. Lately, we have seen Elon Musk’s (umm…) elan play out with purchasing Twitter, followed by a series of very questionable decisions. He spent billions and shortly thereafter made the greatly reduced staff scrounge for toilet paper.
Johnson assembles a crowd-pleasing film with his “Knives Out” mystery for a Netflix generation. Along the way, the greater mystery of social inequity and the people who thrive on fast fame and ill-gotten gain is along for the ride.
Further, once the mystery is unveiled, the characters will be faced with a choice. When knowledgeable of what has happened, will they then have the wherewithal to act upon that knowledge they have gained?
Living through the past three years with social, economic, racial, and political upheaval has been an endurance. However, what is the result in the long run for a country that has gone through the pandemic, the George Floyd murder and BLM protests, and the disruptive events of the 2020 election and January 6? On this side of the 2020 pandemic, have we truthfully addressed our ailments, medical and societal alike?
Rev. Jerrod Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.