The downtime over Christmas and New Year’s gave most of us the chance to catch up on some movies, and according to Netflix, a lot of people ended up turning on Glass Onion, the newest Benoit Blanc murder mystery movie by Rian Johnson.
I like murder mysteries, and liked Johnson’s Knives Out which introduced us to Daniel Craig’s relentless Louisiana detective. So I was very keen for Glass Onion. So keen, in fact, that I didn’t wait until its Netflix release and instead paid real Australian dollars at a cinema to see it during its brief theatrical release in mid-November.
(Spoilers ahead for Glass Onion and Knives Out so proceed with caution.)
I liked it overall. Johnson is a talented filmmaker with a clear love for Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries and it shows. Ignore the thunderously literal critique from the Ben Shapiros of the world. The story moves along briskly, the twists and turns are satisfying, and the conclusion explosive.
Glass Onion is also a very contemporary movie; a Movie About Now. Not just because of the forefronting of the pandemic in the opening 20 minutes (which I expect will age poorly, if it hasn’t already), but also in its themes and sensibilities.
This makes sense, because for all his talents, Johnson is an extremely 21st century filmmaker, perhaps the most 21st century filmmaker we have. In fact, he’s a post-Facebook filmmaker.
His movies are full of Current Thing references, jokes that only make sense if you’re very Online, and, above all else, political themes that hit the pleasure receptors of very online progressive media professionals like single-origin fair-trade barista-made coffee.
Indeed, it’s not just that the political themes are comforting to culturally savvy and influential progressives in a general sense, it’s Johnson’s tendency to put politics at the centre of his films is what makes them so of the moment. Because that is what defines our social media age – politics first, people second. Politics as a proxy for character. Politics as a proxy for morality and Being a Good Person. How you vote is who you are.
It’s a worldview that’s become so pervasive it’s easy to forget it’s so modern.
While disagreements on politics at family get-togethers go back as far as families have existed, it seems there’s now barely a question about whether or not you should disown your family or friends if they vote the wrong way. There’s a reason post-Trump a whole industry of writing about this issue has emerged.
But back to Johnson. Once you understand online infused progressive politics, you can easily grasp the central mystery of Glass Onion. Irish writer Conor Fitzgerald insightfully notes:
“Proximity to Liberal preferences and faithfulness to those ideals is what indicates whether you’re a good or bad in these movies. Self-identified or implicitly Liberal characters can be bad, but they’re bad because they fail to live up their ideals. People we identify as illiberal are bad people with bad ideas.”
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. In Knives Out it’s Ana De Armas’ undocumented immigrant nurse who is the hero among the rich white New England family she works for. Not just a hero but a paragon of all that is Right and Good. She literally cannot lie and the central murder mystery is solved, in part, because she is too good at her job as a nurse and as a result she foiled the murderer’s original plan.
And in Glass Onion the silent strong mysterious woman of colour played by Janelle Monae is not just one, but two, heroic characters. One the real genius behind the success of Edward Norton’s barely disguised Elon Muskesque billionaire character, the other a plucky school teacher who gets the bad guy in the end.
To a lesser extent the same dynamic is in play in Johnson’s Star Wars entry, The Last Jedi, through the character of Rose Tico — but enough digital ink has been spilled on that movie so we’ll let it be.
The opposite is true, too. The politically right-coded characters in these movies can’t just be bad people, they must be pitiful, uniquely, comically bad people. Dave Bautista’s Glass Onion character isn’t just a Men’s Rights streamer but he lives with his mother and is cuckolded by his girlfriend. Kate Hudson’s ditsy socialite runs a sweatshop factory and flagrantly breaks Covid rules (something the movie very clearly frowns upon).
Above all else, all the bad characters are also stupid. This is critical to understanding Johnson’s underlying politics. Indeed the big climactic detective-solves-the-case speech in Glass Onion delivered by Benoit Blanc is literally about the stupidity of the bad guy.
The glass onion metaphor – taken from The Beatles’ song of the same name – is about something looking complex and brilliant but being empty and stupid. Blanc’s speech exposes the culprit because he realises what looked like a masterful criminal scheme was essentially a bumbling spontaneous vainglorious crime of opportunity. In the same way, Norton’s billionaire empire is shown to be empty at its core.
But Johnson doesn’t seem to realise the metaphor also extends to his politics. There is nothing concrete attached to any of the political themes – no policy or philosophical program. It’s all posturing and performance. Being savvy and smart and caring about the right things and knowing the right cultural trends and donating to Hilary Clinton bestows on you good character. The wrong politics and being a little daft and liking gauche cultural products bestows on you bad character.
It’s a shame, because Johnson is a gifted filmmaker, and reinventing and repopularising the Christie-style ensemble murder mystery is a project about which I’m delighted. But he could afford to spend a little less time online, a little less time in coastal media elite circles. It might help him tone down the pandering politics and it would make his characters richer, his movies better, and he might well learn a thing or two about the world while he’s at it.