Set in Greece, Rian Johnson’s slick whodunnit is a repudiation of the tech craze, influencer culture, class privilege, and American hegemony abroad.
Warning: Contains Spoilers for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
By Vanessa Bloom
“I like the glass onion, as a metaphor. An object that seems densely layered, but in reality, the center is in plain sight.” Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is back, and don’t let his distinctive twang distract you from the truths he has to tell. In this anticipated sequel to Knives Out, Blanc returns to solve yet another mystery, this time at billionaire Miles Bron’s (Edward Norton) private island in Greece (the film was shot in Greece and Serbia). Like the titular glass onion itself, this film has layers of meaning for the audience to peel back, everything from class differences to American influence in the world at large.
Before anyone argues that it’s “not meant to be that deep,” let me remind you that to assume so would be to underestimate writer/director Rian Johnson. From the biting sequences critiquing the White American Liberal in the first Knives Out (“‘Immigrants Get the Job Done!’” one character quotes while another replies, “I love Hamilton”; later in the film, these same characters threaten to report the heroine’s undocumented mother to I.C.E.) to Johnson’s real-life defense of Asian-American actress Kelly Marie Tran during the racist attacks she endured after starring in Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, Johnson knows what he’s doing.
He’s well aware of both his audience and himself, and has over a million followers on Twitter where he interacts with fans and trolls his haters (most notably conservative poster boy Ben Shapiro). Born into privilege himself (his childhood home in San Clemente, California was listed for $7.7 million in 2018) Rian Johnson nevertheless possesses an uncanny awareness of injustice in the world, and isn’t afraid to call it out when he sees it.
Johnson’s sensibilities are written out in his latest film, the Knives Out sequel Glass Onion. A fresh cast of American characters descend into chaos as their 21st century lives collide in Greece: the brilliant scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.); image-obsessed politician Claire Debella (Katherine Hahn); former model turned loungewear entrepreneur Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and her long-suffering assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick); and gun-toting alpha male influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), accompanied by his girlfriend who’s using him for her own political aspirations, Whisky (Madelyne Cline).
Each character has their secrets and they’re all part of a former friend group split apart when Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) had a falling out with Miles over the tech company they created together. Janelle Monáe shines as the co-star of this movie, commanding the screen and demanding respect – from the other characters and the audience alike. She and Craig as Blanc make a formidable pair, her character’s highfalutin big-city accent contrasting delightfully with his Southern drawl. For his part, Edward Norton as Miles Bron plays up the Elon Musk-esque aspects of his character, the big ideas, the tech jargon, and the constant push for “progress” no matter what the cost (“I want to be responsible for something that gets talked about in the same breath as the Mona Lisa,” Miles declares).
The backdrop of Greece is something Johnson himself said was a creative decision to separate this film from its predecessor, Knives Out, set in the American state of Virginia. However, Johnson does more than show the beautiful scenery, he uses it to illustrate characters’ privilege. Glass Onion is set during the Covid-19 Pandemic, and like so many real-life well-off Americans who fled cities to move to beautiful yet typically lower-income areas, Miles Bron has a mansion on a Greek island and invites his American friends for a mask-free weeklong soirée. No matter that the staff driving or serving them have to be masked; Covid-19 is their problem for being poor.
Once at his mansion (which features a gigantic glass onion on the roof) we learn of Miles’ real plans: pushing his tech company’s hydrogen powered fuel to market as quickly as possible, despite warnings it’s highly explosive and not safety tested. Miles embodies the “move fast and break things” mentality that began with California’s tech elite in Silicon Valley and has since infected the world at large. The fact that Greece is thousands of miles from Miles’ company headquarters doesn’t protect the country from his machinations; it’s revealed later on that Miles is secretly running his mansion on the new, untested energy system. American dominance globally is perpetuated by wealth and status, and Miles Bron is no exception – he’s the rule.
The conflict between Miles’ friend group and the now-outcast Andi is also another excellent example of Johnson’s keen eye for spotting social inequality. Andi, a Black woman, is self-made and grew up lower-class in the American South. She changed her accent to fit in with her wealthy mostly white Northerner friends. So it makes sense Andi’s the target when the friend group sours. As we learn later, she was the only one to actually call Miles out, and he continued using her ideas to make the company successful. The others, basically writing Andi off as the Angry Black Woman stereotype, fall in line behind Miles.
Johnson knows a thing or two about mob mentality: five years later, he still limits his Instagram comments from when Star Wars fans spammed him with hate after the release of The Last Jedi in 2018. In Glass Onion, he does not hold back in portraying how Miles and his friends ostracized Andi, ultimately murdering her. Johnson also isn’t afraid to describe exactly what these characters are, through the words spoken by Benoit Blanc: “I expected complexity. I expected intelligence. I expected a puzzle, a game. But that’s not what any of this is. It hides not behind complexity, but behind mind-numbing obvious clarity.” The obvious clarity is that the characters of Glass Onion are a cross-section of the American elite, all scrambling to appease the current billionaire who’s going to fund their next project and get them up a couple of rungs up the ladder.
Everyone else is collateral, disposable beings that exist to serve the larger goal – not only Miles and his friends’ personal ambitions, but the more opaque notions of preserving wealth, stymying social advancement for the lower classes, and American influence abroad. Only when our heroes step in is justice delivered for the late Andi; even then, the rest of Miles’ posse don’t really learn anything. They only switch to being against Miles once it’s bad for their own reputations.
In Glass Onion, the American Dream curdles under the Greek sun. Johnson is an excellent, insightful writer, not only crafting a classic mystery but giving it a deeper meaning that’s more relevant than ever in the 21st century. While tech continues to grow, influencers influence, and billionaires profit off low-wage labor, the division between the wealthy and the poor also continues to grow. Simultaneously, American influence has spread across the globe, and shows no sign of stopping. Nowhere are all these issues on better display than in Glass Onion, where, like a master chef, Rian Johnson peels back the story … revealing that the outer layer and the core are one and the same.
Glass Onion is available on Netflix.
Vanessa Bloom is an emerging writer, educator, and filmmaker from Orange County, California. She was adopted from China in 1999, and her mom’s side is Jewish from the Balkans while her dad’s is Christian from the American Midwest. Her family is not only multiracial and multicultural, but also multifaith! With such a colorful background, Vanessa loves telling stories and has written everything from coming-of-age dramas to horror comedy. Her favorite type of story is one that makes her laugh. Vanessa has a B.A. in history and a teaching credential in social science from CSU Long Beach. She also is proud to be a Los Angeles Community Leader for The LUNAR Collective, an organization for and by Asian Jews. Find her work at linktr.ee/vanessabloom.