This movie is absolutely extraordinary.
I was not prepared.
Despite the considerable anticipation for fans, this film was released with comparatively little fanfare. It was only in cinemas for a single week, and arrived on Netflix without a splash. I saw that Knives Out was on Netflix UK before I saw that Glass Onion was.
Traditional media seem mystified by the decision, but as a disabled person I am extremely thankful. I can’t count the number of films I would have seen at the cinema if I could over the last few years: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Dune, Elvis, The Green Knight, Black Widow… But it wouldn’t have been safe, even if I did have the energy to leave the house. And by the time those movies arrived to streaming, I’d either had them spoiled or lost interest.
Some may see this as Netflix leaving in-person money on the table, but they have my money instead. And thanks to my excited tweets, toots, and Tumblr posts yesterday, a whole bunch of other folks are excited to watch it too.
Because what I saw made me extremely excited.
This film is so rich and the detail so exquisite that it won’t be possible to talk about it adequately without giving at least some spoilers, so I’m going to give a brief, spoiler-free reaction, and then delve into the details.
Low spoiler reaction: OH MY GOD, THIS IS FUN
The set up has an ecclectic group of people receive elaborate puzzle boxes that invite them to a murder mystery on a private island, hosted by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton). He invites them to solve his murder.
One recipient, Cassandra Bland (Janelle Monae), seems rather less enamoured of the invitation.
Meanwhile, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous detective from the first movie, sits depressed in his bath, dealing poorly with the isolation of the pandemic.
YES, THEY ACTUALLY ACKNOWLEDGE THE PANDEMIC.
This was probably the first thing that made me sit up and really think.
Understandably, when the first lockdowns happened, most media took the position of pretending the pandemic didn’t exist, in order to avoid retraumatising everyone. However, this year, governments around the world lifted restrictions, despite the fact that the pandemic has not gone away. People continue to get infected, and while vaccines have mitigated deaths, people are still dying in large numbers, becoming disabled in even larger numbers, and already-chornically-ill people, like me, have had freedoms we’d had tentatively adopted in 2021 stripped away, because no one else is masking or social distancing.
We have been left trapped in our homes while the rest of the world spreads infections that would kill us or destroy our lives, even with vaccination.
Now the trauma is people pretending that the pandemic does not exist. So to see a piece of media include it: include masking, include selfish people not masking, include people depressed because they are trapped in their houses while others break rules without a care…
It was a blessed relief.
I felt seen.
For about 10 minutes, anyway, before they hand-waved it away so their stars could walk about unmasked. [Addendum: Ancient-string on Tumblr made a post that explained to me that they did not, in fact, hand-wave away the corona virus, and it is, in fact, present throughout the entire movie in a really glorious way. However, to explain that would be a (minor) spoiler, so only follow the link if you don’t want to see if you get it on your own.]
But this was the first inkling of what turned out to be a tour de force critique of all the problems of our times, with a fake-ass billionaire sitting squarely in the middle of them.
I said on Twitter that it’s the Citizen Kane (1941) of our time and I’m sure many people thought I was exaggerating, but I wasn’t. And not just because it’s a targeted critique of the super-rich.
This is an exquisitely well-made popular movie that people will be writing essays about for decades to come. And it’s written specifically for the problems of right now, so although I’m sure 50 years from now people will still watch and enjoy it, they won’t feel it on a visceral level the way we do now. Just as I felt a disconnect watching Citizen Kane as a 90s child.
No one ever feels searingly important movies as powerfully as the audience for which they were intended.
But a guarantee you: however much times change, this is a movie that will always be extremely fun.
I would even say that the wit and pace have been refined since the first movie. I adored Knives Out, but it took a little while to really gel for me. It was stylish and well-acted from the get go, but just not quite the polished gem of engrossing entertainment that I found Glass Onion to be, right from the start.
And, I cannot stress this enough: Daniel Craig and Janelle Monae are having a blast and it is a very great pleasure to watch them at it.
They practically vibrate off the screen with how much they clearly enjoy bouncing off each other as actors, embracing the fabulous characters they’ve been gifted.
And against this background of sheer delight, there’s a cutting analysis of the woes of our fucked up world, woven together to create a climax that digs its knives into not just billionaires, but tech bro culture; the death of truth; white supremacy; modern slavery; political corruption; the devaluation of education and art; the monopolisation and overvaluation of historic art by the rich; and cynical virtue signalling by corporations that have no connection to, or understanding of, the real issues.
Eight years ago I said it was time to watch movies from the 1930s because I could see which way the wind was blowing and it fucking depressed me that our popular culture wasn’t calling it out. BUT HERE IT IS. This is it.
And it’s not that no one has mentioned these issues before. Chernobyl is still a hugely important masterpiece that grimly asks us: “What is the cost of lies?” But for all that serious dramas like that are important, they’ll never have the power to seize the public imagination the way something that is utterly delightful can.
But to say more, I need to take a look under the hood. So if you haven’t seen it yet, go off and do that – as soon as you can! Make it your holiday watch! Get from it all the endorphoines you need in these dark times, and then come back buzzing to see if you got the same things from it that I did.
From now on here be SPOILERS
OK, let’s start with the fact that they made Bond gay.
And The gays are normal
Like, I know Daniel Craig =/= James Bond, but he’s a big hecking symbol. And Blanc is such a dramatic departure from Bond. Obviously all the same character traits are there from the first movie, where he could have been read as queer-coded, but if there was anything definitive, I missed it. By constrast, one of the first things you hear when he’s introduced is a male voice talking through the bathroom door and friends talking about a ‘Philip’ (who is clearly Blanc’s partner) as having told them things.
Then later, when we see the partner, it’s famous heart-throb Hugh-fucking-Grant.
Hugh Grant and Daniel Craig are adorable ageing gays and it’s beautiful.
And domesticity is written over every inch of what little we see of their apartment. From the depression-mess in Blanc’s bathroom, to Blanc playing Among Us, to the fact that when we meet Philip he comes to the door in an apron and holding a sourdough starter. The fact that we see so little of their apartment is also one of the ways they code Blanc as normal in constrast to most of the wealthy characters who have benefited from Bron’s patronage. Blanc is dissatisfied because he cannot solve mysteries (do his job) in lockdown, and we feel how cramped he is. Constrast to Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), the former-model-turned-fashion-designer, who has ‘bent’ lockdown rules to turn her mansion into a vast party, claiming that all the people there are in her ‘pod’.
Blanc and Philip may be played by men who’ve been sex symbols when they were younger, but they are not presented in that way. While both obviously still have charm, they’re presented as comfortable, having aged gracefully, doing the things that we did (or at least were aware of lots of people doing) in Lockdown.
One thing that struck me early in this film was the commentary on beauty standards and ageing, or the perception of ageing. We see this also in Knives Out where close-ups of famously beautiful women seem to be framed to show, rather than hide their wrinkles, and I’m sure there were conscious decisions made by the make-up artists too. In the first movie I detected this as a general theme, but not an especially deep one. It was just a general sense of deception, fakeness, holding onto an image of beauty when what’s inside has become ugly.
The theme is more developed in Glass Onion, and, to my mind, is itself more graceful. While we get similar close-ups of Birdie that show her make-up as not hiding the signs of ageing, normal, comfortable ageing is much more present as a contrast. Most films go to a lot of effort to preserve the ideal of youth while using ageing stars. The stars bring in more money because they have an established carreer, but it’s often a career built while they were young and unwrinkled. Anxiety makes filmmakers try to hide the changes time has written, and even apply anti-aging CGI to make them still appear young.
But this is a cast full of older actors famous for their beauty: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Hugh Grant, and even Ethan Hawke (briefly), and the camera never avoids the signs of age. And it presents those who seem most comfortable with it as normal, friendly, approachable. Those who try to hide it seem, by contrast, distant and uncomfortable.
This includes, by the way, the Mona Lisa. Though Bron proudly tells us that DaVinci developed a technique for painting that left no brushstrokes – a complately smooth finish – the scenes in the presence of the painting repeatedly cut to close-ups that reveal the cracks of age in her painted skin.
Fakes and originality
Having the (ostensibly) real Mona Lisa as the centrepiece in the room where much of the action takes place is not what I would call a subtle way of placing the question of forgery, fakes, and originality front and centre. A question I asked myself all through the movie was whether it would turn out to be the real Mona Lisa or a fake – after all, Bron could have been lying.
The fact that he was not reflects Bron’s own deep insecurity. He wants to be talked of in the same sentence as the Mona Lisa. That tells us that even though he’s a fake whose empire has been built on lies and theft, he still values originality and genuine talent. Even though the world believes he created the social media network Alpha, he always feels in Cassandra Bland’s shadow – because she was the real deal, and he was just hanging onto her coattails. For all that Duke Cody describes himself as sucking on Bron’s golden teat, they are all reliant for their trappings of success on the actual talent of Cassandra Bland.
None of it exists without actual creators with actual originality. Just as AI art that steals from living artists for its training database is fundamentally derivative.
Bron’s initial presentation as a faker tech bro seemed a little shallow to me – enjoyable, but shallow. Down to the use of the non-words that niggle Blanc so: inbreathiate.
But Blanc’s final speech ties it all together so perfectly. The point is that it’s stupid. It’s not even clever fakery. Clever fakery is something Blanc enjoys. Like when he solves the murder mystery written by an expensive professional writer before the game even begins. But this isn’t clever fakery.
Like Elon Musk buying Twitter because he got butthurt and making just the worst, most transparently ridiculous decisions.
Like four years of Donald Trump’s bold-faced lies.
It’s all so stupid. It infuriates clever people, and we don’t know how to respond to it.
The Glass Onion
I admit, when I first read the title I thought it was silly. Not nearly so eye-catching and pithy as Knives Out. I thought they should have just called it Knives Out 2.
I was wrong.
The point, as Blanc concludes in the end, is precisely that it’s fucking stupid. It’s transparently stupid. ‘Layers like an onion’ is too obvious a metaphor to be interesting. An onion is too ordinary an object to elevate without irony. Making an onion out of glass so you can see through it obviates the point of having layers.
But that’s the point. Of course the tech bro billionaire is a big fake. He’s never needed to be anything else.
Of course the obviously evil guy is the killer, but we were all successfully distracted from our instinctive dislike of him.
Even the clumsy moments are the point.
Like Bron using the rainbow dress as a distraction. The way corporations who funnel money to anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups will buy a float at pride to keep their image. Bron urging Birdie to spin in her meaningless rainbow dress feels too much as you watch it, and that’s just because it is. Because Bron is clumsy.
Bron has never had to be anything other than clumsy. He’s a middle-class white man who failed upwards into money off the back of a black woman’s work.
As someone who works in tech, I’m familiar with the term ‘disrupter’. A disrupter is what you want to be. Disrupters are start-ups who can drive a wedge between the established behemoths of the tech world and their customers because they’re not tied down by the weight of established practice and beaucracy. Disrupters move fast because they’re small and they can invert paradigms because they have no legacy. Sometimes disrupters live up to the hype. Sometimes they’re just causing a disruption and no good comes of it.
One thing a disrupter can’t be is a billionaire. That happens when a disrupter transitions into establishment. What most tech people want to do is find some kind of in-between ground between disrupter and slow-moving behemoth. And that’s very hard.
What we’re seeing with Musk now is just the kind of nonsense half-understanding of disrupter theory Bron waffles his way through in Glass Onion. Making changes without thinking first on the assumption that all change is disruptive and will therefore lead to profit. But real ‘disrupters’ (in as much as there are any) use inherited wealth to sit in a garage (usually not the modest affair that sounds like) and carefully develop their disruptive idea for years before bringing it to the market. Musk is just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks. Because he’s never invented anything. He’s always inherited someone else’s labour.
It’s what Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr) wants to do with the ‘Klean’ energy project, and is horrified to learn Bron has jumped the gun on. He knows that kind of ‘disruption’ actually takes years of careful planning and testing. But that wouldn’t have been disruptive either. It would have been bankrolled by a billionaire, and controlled by him.
It’s all a facade, and a fragile one – just like an onion made of glass. It’s no misake that so much glass is broken in this movie – a glass table breaks when Cody’s killed, a glass pane is shattered when Bron attempts to kill Helen/Cassandra, and of course Helen breaks so many glass objects at the end. Glass is fragile, and you can see right through it. It’s also a reflective surface with the capacity to make us look into our selves or create illusions, so themes of introspection and questions of identity are played with throughout.
The Glass Onion is a fragile illusion that you can see right through. Like a 90s magic eye trick, all you have to do is stop looking at the outline of the illusion itself in order to see right through it to what’s really going on. (Side note: I have never, ever been able to do those, but that’s definitely why one appeared as part of the puzzle box.)
The whole idea of ‘disruption’ is really an illusion invented by privileged people, who were always a part of the establishment, using their wealth to do what few of us are in a position to: really develop their creative ideas into something useful. And then using their existing connections to get those ideas out into the world where they can make money.
That’s not really disruption.
Burn it all down
Real disruption is a riot. Real disruption comes from pain and causes pain. Real disruption aims at the whole system, not merely the current incombent.
The politician is posing as an AOC-style disruptive politician, but AOC’s a working latina funded with small donations from real constituents shaking up the establishment, Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is a middle-class white woman funded by a billionaire. She is no different than those she claims to oppose – as she confesses when she admits she already approved Bron’s plant.
Real disruption is Helen, the black high-school teacher who wants justice for her sister.
Note the centring of education for ordinary people, which has become so devalued in the US that school teachers are known to bring in their own supplies because there’s no funding for them. (Not that we are so very far behind that in the UK; we live in fear because we know that what American corrupt politicians have, our corrupt politicians want.)
And this is why it’s so important that at the end Benoit Blanc, middle-class white man, steps back, and not only lets the young blank woman, Helen Brand, take centre stage… he also admits that there’s nothing he can do.
Blanc admits that all he can do is present evidence to lawyers and cops, and he knows what he has to present will not move them in the face of money and lies.
The law has failed black people, and women, and young folk, and young black women in particular. When people cannot get justice from the law, it does not mean they are without recourse. What Helen does – breaking the glass statues, and then setting fire to it all – is real disruption, and an obvious call out to the Black Lives Matter protests. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “riot is the language of the unheard”.
I would emphasise that violence in riots is usually instigated by the police, and much of what was called ‘riot’ in the BLM protests were peaceful gatherings that police hounded in an attempt to provoke riot. Nevertheless. The dismissal of any protest as not peaceful is a tool of authoritarianism. To the extent that it’s now illegal in the UK to have a protest that causes ‘disruption‘.
Protest is meant to be disruptive, in the true meaning of the word. It’s meant to be inconvenient and shake you out of your rut so you realise that something big needs to change. It’s meant to be inconvenient.
Yet Extinction Rebellion have been panned in the press for their disruptive protests. Protests that are often presented as more harmful than they really are. Many people I know were appalled by the protest of smearing cake on the Mona Lisa and throwing paint at a Van Gogh. But the paintings were entirely unharmed. These are the most expensive paintings in the world, valued far in excess of the work of any living artist. They were never in any danger.
What the papers didn’t like was the attack on wealth and ‘normality’ and big oil.
So they all wrote headlines than made it sound like the paintings themselves had been damaged. But they hadn’t been.
And even if they had been, for all I value art (and I really truly do). No single piece is worth more than the planet on which it exists.
And this is why it’s important that Helen burns the Mona Lisa in the end.
Because we should be willing to burn the symbols.
Because human lives and our planet are worth more than them.
But for some reason, a person’s death is not as powerful as a threat to a painting.
It’s burning the painting that gets the ‘shitheads’ to see that Bron is just a man. That his lies are only powerful because they stand by him. And that they could just as easily stand by Cassandra instead.
And while we’re talking about the value of a life, something was niggling away at me as I wrote this post. Something about the name Helen Brand.
I realised a few paragraphs back that it isn’t the name Helen Brand that was itching away in the back of my consciousness.
It was Sandra Bland.
I had noticed the obvious name play with ‘Cassandra’ the seer who prophesised the fall of Troy, but was cursed to never be believed. It was cute, but obvious, like so much on the surface of the Glass Onion.
The real symbolism hit me like a punch to the gut. The fact that Cassandra went by ‘Andi’ hints at another name and another meaning, but I couldn’t see anything special about ‘Andi’. Then I got it: another shortening of Cassandra is Sandra. Sandra Brand. A name so close to Sandra Bland that I actually misheard it as that on my first watch.
The real Sandra Bland was arrested in what appears to be a bogus traffic stop. Three days later she was found dead in her cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, but she had no signs of clinical depression and the cause of death is widely disputed. Video of her arrest makes her treatment seem overly violent and the arrest itself questionable.
What is clear is that she did not have to die.
Protests erupted in response, calling for an inquiry. The legal results fell well short of the mark.
To have Helen Brand, put on the guise of Cassandra Brand, whose murder was framed to look like suicide – a symbolic representation of Sandra Bland – to exact justice on someone who thought themselves to be beyond the law is… Fitting? Apt? Words struggle to express it.
That’s the best I can do. And it is that.
Perhaps some will be shocked by the violent destruction at the end of the film, but no one is harmed. Only things.
I am ever in awe of the restraint black people have shown, when they are constantly asked for civility in the face of such blatent and horrible abuses.
Sandra Bland is dead and she didn’t have to be.
Say her name.
Say it before you mention the Mona Lisa.
I’m glad Glass Onion found a way to honour it forever.