Many people were pleasantly surprised by the 2019 film Knives Out. In an era of movies defined by unoriginality, Rian Johnson’s mystery thriller was one you could not predict. When so many filmmakers seem incapable of anything beyond sequels, prequels, and reboots, the bar is quite low. Knives Out was unexpected and inventive.
Johnson is now making a series of “Knives Out mysteries,” which some are lauding as a return to Agatha Christie’s caliber of mystery writing. The first in what will undoubtedly be a long line of Netflix features following on Knives Out is Glass Onion, released in theaters for one week last November and streaming beginning in late December. There are clever moments, but the story is a flop.
[Glass Onion SPOILERS AHEAD] Styled as a satirical comedy-thriller, Glass Onion is heavy on the zeitgeist, light on reality. No one watches a popular film for hyperrealism, but what often makes for satisfying entertainment is placing the imagined counterfactual in a context that shares some features with the way things really are. The suspension of disbelief becomes harder if there is glaring incoherence in the writer’s universe.
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Right out of the gate, things didn’t look promising. The film reintroduces the charming and intelligent Detective Benoit Blanc amid the shutdowns of 2020. What is the independent-minded mensch with a strong Southern accent doing? Having an emotional meltdown in his bathtub while video-calling a group of highly empathetic friends. The Covid lockdowns were tough for him, and he was struggling to stay connected to his true self.
This seems implausible. A character like Blanc would be apt to follow the calm and rational course of someone like Mike Rowe, the television personality of Dirty Jobs fame who continued traveling and filming in 2020. Rowe stated that he was “not ignoring Covid” but recognized that it was only a matter of time before we all got it and that he was not at high risk for severe complications. A skeptical and analytical personality like Blanc would surely come to a similar conclusion. He would not be hiding in his apartment eating too much chocolate and talking about his feelings. Blanc’s character, the only holdover from the original Knives Out, is unrecognizable from the previous film.
The person he does resemble is the member of the audience who was terrified by Covid. Having made this identification with the average Joe, Blanc is summoned under mysterious circumstances to the private island of a tech billionaire, Miles Bron. We are with Blanc, the normal guy, entering a realm of rarified Big Tech money.
The other characters in the film are more consistent and believable, if heavy-handed. They are cardboard cutouts representing different elite classes: a former model turned fashion designer, an influencer, a politician, and a scientist. The only character hinting at depth is Bron. But actually, we learn, he is just a murderous dimwit who made billions of dollars utterly without merit and is incapable of an original thought.
Many viewers across the political spectrum walked away from the film with the strong impression that Miles Bron is Elon Musk. Jim Geraghty, in National Review, writes, “The contention that Elon Musk is an idiot is the not-so-subtle subtext of Glass Onion.” Like Musk, Bron has a rocket enterprise and is obsessed with “disruptors,” people who rethink institutional order.
For all the resemblance that so many picked up on, there are also notable differences. Musk has claimed to live in a modest three-bedroom house in South Texas valued at $45,000. Bron brings his luxury sportscar to levitate on his private island because he doesn’t go anywhere without it and there are no roads on the island. Innovations made under Musk’s leadership have, among other things, revolutionized military communications and successfully launched rockets into space. Bron is so silly that he is going to blow up everyone’s houses with a volatile fuel source. Musk is attempting to personally counteract declining birthrates by impregnating women around the world. Bron murders his childless ex-girlfriend and appears to remain childless.
You may not like Musk; there’s plenty not to like. But he is clearly an interesting man who has done interesting things and taken advantage of emerging technologies to make a boatload of money along the way. How is it that despite being so different from the real-life Musk, Bron is so readily identified as his Glass Onion version?
At bottom, the problem with Johnson’s clumsy satire is that it is hampered by envy. Whether Johnson himself is envious is unknowable and irrelevant in this context. Our current culture is an envious one. Cities are vandalized with calls to “Eat the rich,” and many people feel entitled to the latest iPhone supercomputer. We trumpet our sense of “justice” by seeking to eliminate “the one percent,” not realizing that there will always be a top one percent. Some animals are more equal than others, after all.
There was a time, as social commentator Theodore Dalrymple noted, when Americans seemed peculiarly immune to envy. He wrote, “More people wished good luck to the successful in America than in any other society, though of course not all; fewer people were bitten by envy, and more people impelled by emulation, than anywhere else in the world.” Rather than seeking to emulate the natural virtues of the successful, we now seem to prefer to sneer at their every setback and assume that they are brainless and undeserving.
The Seven Deadly Sins are among us, as they will ever be in this fallen world. Pride, gluttony, and lust have loudly asserted themselves and been called “good” in recent years, but envy seems to be making a strong showing in the growing tide of bitterness and resentment festering in our culture.
The ugly caricature in Glass Onion of a vicious and unthinking man is not Elon Musk, though many think it is. There’s much talk of the “glass onion” trope: an object that appears layered and complex but is also transparent. Silly Bron/Musk thinks he’s so sophisticated, but we smugly think we can see right through him. What we seem to have forgotten is that glass can also be reflective. Fixating on the character of Bron, we are not condemning the loathsome rich but staring into a mirror.
[Image Credit: Netflix]