Monday, April 15, 2024

‘Glass Onion’ Makes a Feast Out Of Genre and Social Commentary

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Benoit Blanc is a character that we know little about. Though, with each movie, Rian Johnson teases little crumbs of implied information. Like the detectives of Dame Agatha Christie or television’s Columbo, they are the entryway into the world, not the subject.

Glass Onion, Johnson’s second Knives Out Mystery has Daniel Craig once again sauntering back onto the screen with his “Kentucky fried accent”. Like with Knives Out, Blanc is again pitted against a viper’s nest of wealthy suspects to solve a mystery. 

glass onion
Back from left to right: Miles (Edward Norton), Claire (Kathryn Hahn), Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), Peg (Jessica Henwick), Birdie (Kate Hudson), Benoit (Daniel Craig)
Front from left to right: Andi (Janelle Monae), Duke (Dave Bautista), and Whiskey (Madelyn Cline)

Whatever your feelings for Knives Out might have been, Glass Onion is not just a better mystery, but a better movie. Johnson’s script is tighter, Blanc more contentious and sharply drawn. All in all, Glass Onion is a more sumptuous and gaudy aesthetic. Fitting, considering the plot concerns a group of wealthy nouveau riche being invited to the pirated island owned by the tech genius Miles Bron (Edward Norton).

In some ways, Johnson is trafficking in nostalgia. A drawing room murder mystery with an all-star cast as he and his cameraperson Steve Yedlin photograph them in sun-drenched locations luxuriating in the lap of decadent luxury.  Harking back to a time when an all-star cast didn’t mean the movie was a capstone to a decade worth of movies. 

Johnson’s Glass Onion is in the vein of movies like Sleuth and Evil Under the Sun. Films that genre pieces but also works that play with the audience’s expectations. It is that sense of playfulness that Johnson so expertly crafts in Glass Onion that makes the film so enjoyable.

Glass Onion is a sumptuous feast both visually and dramatically. Yedlin’s camera captures and frames the characters with an eye that both objectifies and understands them. Yedlin and Johnson use isolation and architecture as a shortcut for comments on class differences. The understanding of the importance of “appearances” as it were. 

Part of the fun of Glass Onion is seeing how Johnson stages his sprawling cast of characters and fits them into one frame. Yedlin and Johnson aren’t afraid of playing with the funhouse reality that is cinema. Glass Onion wears its influences on its sleeve but also it has an unrestrained sense of joy just in its very existence. 

A good thing since the assembled cast of movie stars is up for having a good time. We have governor Claire (Kathryn Hahn) whose campaign is bankrolled by Miles. Then there’s the tech wizard Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr). whose job it is to make sure Miles’s inventions actually work. Also along for the fun is the vapid fashion mogul Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and her trusty personal assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), doing her level best to get her boss out of trouble-often of her own making. Rounding this cavalcade of characters is Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) a Man-o-sphere influencer and his arm candy Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) who has plans of her own.

glass onion
From left to right: Birdie (Hudson), Peg (Henwick), Benoit (Craig), and Lionel (Odom Jr.)

Each character is a caricature or avatar rope for ridicule. Hudson’s vapid Birdie Jay who is always “accidentally” dropping slurs is a proud “free-thinker”. Duke Cody sells “rhino boner pills” while teaching young men the “dangers” of feminism from his mother’s garage. Lionel and Claire are not archetypes per se but more symptoms of our time. People who more than most of the group recognize the sins they have committed but have chosen to hang their hat with Miles simply because he can help them attain the power to “change”. 

Then there’s Norton as Miles. Charming, arrogant, narcissistic, and if you look closely, a raging idiot. Miles can easily be read as a clear-eyed takedown of another tech billionaire famous for “inventing things” but in reality is more famous for “buying things”. Except, this movie was conceived and made long before certain tech giants boasted of wanting to buy one of the most influential inventions of the 21st century. The reason Miles seems so accurate of a critique is simply because the Miles of reality are so predictable and all the same.

The fuel of Glass Onion outside of the delightful murder mystery, and the way Johnson plays with narrative and gleefully takes on the mantle of an unreliable narrator, is a depressed fury of the class divide. Blanc is a detective who does not demand perfect order, but he does demand moral order. His drive to solve the case isn’t about solving puzzles, though much like our friend in the deerstalker hat, he does crave constant mental stimulation, but rather in seeing the innocent-or what he perceives to be the innocent-flourish. In other words, he wants to see the rich pricks actually face some sort of consequence.

This time around Blanc is aided by Andi (Janelle Monae). I haven’t even mentioned Monae’s Andi. Doing so would spoil much of the fun of Glass Onion so I’ll simply say Monae is magnificent. A performance that is all the more layered once we and Johnson begin peeling back the layers of the plot. 

She and Craig play off each other wonderfully. Unlike Ana de Armas’s Marta, she does not have a biological lie detector. What she does have is a steel spine and apparently a clear head when drunk. Even Blanc points this out when he opines about her help with his investigation, “You should take up drinking because you are killing it.”

In the middle of Johnson’s machinations is Craig’s Benoit Blanc, sniffing clues and offering genuine advice to a group of people only concerned with bromides. Craig is having a ball, as is everyone in Glass Onion. His Benoit is frustrated by the pandemic, feeling cramped and suffering from lack of a mental challenge. 

Benoit quips early on, “I’m not Batman.” Much like Henry Cavill’s Sherlock Holmes in Enola Holmes 2, he is a detective who is powerless to change the system. He is only one man. He needs the system to corroborate in order to bring the guilty to justice. Benoit is not a crusader for vengeance and even if he were, he is a man of limited resources. Yes, Benoit is well off but he is not Bruce Wayne or “have a private island” rich. The difference is all the difference as Mammet said.

glass onion
And (Janelle Monae)

I know many people have no desire to see the pandemic talked about or portrayed onscreen. But I do think seeing some sort of acknowledgment that we all really did live through that is not only nice but necessary. Little flourishes of magical realism such as the guests being inoculated by a mystery vaccination or some other wonder drug before departing for Miles’ private island work here because of what we know of how the system work. 

Or doesn’t work. 

Or rather it does-if you can afford it.

Glass Onion isn’t as cut and dry as all that, however. Lionel and Claire, for example, have more of an understanding of what is right and wrong, which makes their sins somehow worse. Claire is a horrible person seemingly incapable of change but she respects Peg, even so far as being one of the few people who acknowledge her in the group and doing what she’s asked of her. Duke is a meathead but he loves his mother and is clearly using his “misogyny influencer” as a way to make a buck and to stay in Miles’ circle. Even his arm candy Whiskey seems to have genuine affection for them.

However, make no mistake, all of them are guilty. But some of them are powerless, while others are clueless, with the rest being prisoners of their own gilded cages. I suppose that’s one of the surprising things about Glass Onion. It has great moral anger at the injustice of the modern world, which we can all cheer on, but it also has an understanding of how easily the system can trap us into doing what it wants.

Johnson has great empathy for these characters. He doesn’t forgive them but he does understand them. This is why the ending feels so satisfying. 

Johnson is playing with us, such as when he and Yedlin hold a shot to observe how a drop of hot sauce will travel. A scene that had me and other people in my audience visibly squirming and moaning in discomfort. Glass Onion reminds us that there is a difference between movies with a playful sense of humor and movies that merely try to outplay us. 

Images courtesy of Netflix

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