Other Layers of “Glass Onion”

I was so delighted with Rian Johnson’s film “Knives Out” that I bought myself a physical copy, lest I be enslaved to a streaming service to have ready access to it. Ah the sad irony… Anyhow. It is now one of my cinematic comfort foods. The film is just so tight, with impeccable setups and payoffs, emotional swings, and humor that I enjoy every re-watch with equal thrill.

Part of what makes “Knives Out” so rewatchable is the social dimensions Rian Johnson built into his characters. The plot is not allegorical, but the way he wrote the characters certainly contains allegory. That the protagonist is a “dreamer,” a child of an undocumented immigrant, has practical implications to how we view the family and the family’s treatment of her. It emphasizes their unconditional entitlement to not just the wealth of the murder victim, but to having power over her (even though the only person with legitimate authority is her employer, the murder victim). They want her around only if she’s useful to them, but assume her rights are conditional to their own self interest. It just makes every interaction more interesting as you map it onto real life attitudes about immigrants.

When I watched “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” in theaters, I tried to temper my expectations in order to just enjoy it. I went in for a ride and came out of it very happy. Yet still, I also felt a little sad at what felt like a more shallow level of meaning in the script. And you know, for a movie titled “Glass Onion”…fair enough. But thankfully I also watched the movie with friends, and as we talked about things that stood out to us and parsed some choices the movie made, a few ingredients lingered in my mind that settled together. And when I rewatched “Glass Onion” on its Netflix release I was gratified to find a new layer of depth to the script that made it yet again a little richer than your average cozy murder.

(Spoilers. In fact, if you haven’t seen the movie this post will make no sense.)

When I search online for reactions to “Glass Onion,” the results that come up all tend to fixate on gazillionaire Miles Bron. I think this is a sign of our very current times. What with the recent failures of Musk and Sam Bankman-Freed, watching an “eccentric,” arrogant, flashy money-lord humiliate himself scratches the same schadenfreude of our recent news cycles. With that context, it’s no wonder that the immediate response is numerous think pieces on how Miles is the movie’s glass onion. He’s an idiot whose layers of confidence and context would trick you into thinking he’s brilliant. He gets to flash wealth and let people postulate what he did to deserve it. He gets to say inane things like, “I want to be remembered in the same breath as the Mona Lisa,” and watch others fill the meaning in for him.

But speaking of the Mona Lisa.

If there is an opposing symbol in this movie to the glass onion, it is the Mona Lisa. I’ll admit I’m not all that romantic about the Mona Lisa, but in the terms of the movie it is a symbol of fame, complexity, and innovation. Miles covets it for all these attributes with a reverence so distorted that he sees the painting not as an “it” but a “she.” This builds real irony into the film because while the glass onion of the movie is Miles Bron, the Mona Lisa of the movie is very explicitly Ms. Brand.

And this is what’s interesting to me about responses to the film. I’ve been seeing lots of ideas and ahas about who Miles and the other “Disruptors” represent in our surrounding culture, but as yet nothing about the Ms. Brands. And that’s odd, because the story is Ms. Brand’s, not Miles’s. What we should be asking is who are the Ms. Brands, Andi and Helen?

Cassandra “Andi” Brand is perhaps one of the weaker points of “Glass Onion.” She’s dead before the film even starts, so that isn’t a particular indictment of the writing. Andi is said to be brilliant, but that trait is a little undermined by the fact that she surrounded herself with a community of, erhem, shitheads. Also, she let herself get scammed out of ownership in her own company. Not clear how she let that happen. Perhaps from that we can read some weaknesses of her other defining trait, ambition. She knew how to aim up, but did not know how to read the character of her peers or the system she was entering. Indeed, that was the actual power that Miles brought to the team. Miles knew how to read character and systems –and thus how to manipulate them for his own glorification. Andi brought them together and came up with the ideas, Miles marketed them with his bluster and connections into success. Still, Andi was innovative and her ambition was tempered by honesty and responsibility. And she’s always posed like the Mona Lisa.

Helen Brand, however, is Miles’ match, though she is not ambitious or brilliant in the capitalist sense of the word. Helen could tell up front that Andi had gone in with “shitheads,” and warned her twin against them. She cuts through the fatuous lie that the Disruptors are kindred souls hanging out together and reads that they’re just mooches held hostage to a rich man’s ego. She can tell right away that Miles is her sister’s murderer until dissuaded by Blanc. She can look at the Mona Lisa and appreciate the art while still calling it an “it.” Helen also can also read the system, and she can see when it is rigged and unfair. When she sees the puzzle box, she has no group chat, no meddling mother, no guest appearances from Yo-Yo Ma to carry her through it. She knows she can’t solve it… and so she smashes it. She sees in Miles a man with too much money and reputation to be brought to justice… and so she smashes him.

So that is who the Ms. Brands are, but what are they?

As my friend noticed, Cassandra Brand sounds a lot like… Sandra Bland.

I think it’s pretty clear that just as Marta in “Knives Out” served to act out the power dynamics of immigrants in white American society, the Ms. Brands are in this movie acting out the dynamic of Black Lives Matter. I mean, the film is set in 2020, even though Johnson does away the facemasks and COVID plays no indispensable part in the story. What else happened in 2020? The renaissance of Black Lives Matter. It’s not that Andi is a direct stand in for Sandra Bland, or that the plot is an allegory for white supremacy, but it is that they are women who are done grave injury and denied justice. Perhaps the most face-palming reaction to the climax of Glass Onion I’ve read is one that says it is only after The Disruptors realize that Miles didn’t care about them that they turn on him. That’s stupid. At no point in the movie do we believe that The Disruptors care about Miles or believe that he cares about them. In fact, they all know that he’s going to ruin them eventually, but cannot bring themselves to cut off his immediate benefits that they depend upon. Indeed, they cannot destroy him without destroying themselves. Helen knows this, she correctly reads that they would like to give her justice but cannot because of what it would cost them, so she makes it even more costly to stick with him. This is the conundrum that Black Lives Matter is a response to. A history of injustice both inside and outside of the law has benefited American society to the harm of its black constituents, but the cost of restitution prevents anyone from changing the status quo. BLM sets to make the cost of keeping the status quo as expensive as the cost of fixing it. That involves a lot of smashing and disruption.

One of the most satisfying elements of the rewatch was Miles’s monologue on disruption. Knowing how the movie is going to end, you realize that his speech is a blow-by-blow script for Helen’s final actions. It is in this way that the movie lives up to its “fugue” motif. Sure, once you know the plot twist of Helen’s real identity and purpose you can rewatch the scenes with a little more “aha!” But I think the rewatch value there is limited. Instead the transformation is in how you see The Disruptors in contrast to Helen. They all perceive themselves as bucking norms and being dangerous in some kind of sexy way, but they all stop at the glory phase and don’t dare challenge anything that hurts themselves. But Helen goes beyond and crashes the system of Miles’ power and influence even though that act is just as detrimental to herself. Helen’s last Mona Lisa moment is her staring down the incoming police lights –lights that are coming for her just as much as they are for Miles Bron.

But back to this Mona Lisa thing. Andi and Helen Brand are both visually paired with the Mona Lisa. But what is the Mona Lisa? I love that as Helen rushes forward to push the switch that Miles installed to disable the safety case, Rian Johnson pipes in the Nat King Cole song “Mona Lisa.” As the flames sear through the canvas, the song croons the questions, “Are you warm? Are you real, Mona Lisa? Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?” In those questions we can contrast THE Mona Lisa with Andi and Helen, who are each A Mona Lisa. Miles Bron wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. Everyone thought this was symbolic, but being Miles it turns out that he was being painfully literal. His wish had been symbolically answered when he partnered up with Cassandra Bland. She was innovation, success, and fame. She was also real, warm, and true. Yet he vandalized and destroyed her so that he could step closer to association with a cold piece of art for its symbolic value of all the things Andi embodied. And we the audience, watching a murder mystery, are likely just as guilty as Miles at finding the BBQing of the Mona Lisa more shocking than his murders. So it is that Helen’s final act of destruction asks us to re-examine our priorities. What matters more: the thing or the person?

Post Script

Perhaps my only real disappointment with Glass Onion was that it didn’t have a post-credit joke. I know, I know, that’s really blase these days, but I just wanted a little clip showing us that Bron’s anti-COVID sterilizer gun was just as much crock as his other ideas. A shot of Blanc or the other disruptors testing positive would’ve been a funny last reveal.

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