Picture this: you’re halfway through a theatrical showing of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and the screen begins to flicker with a green overlay on the borders of characters and other moving objects. An easily identifiable digital projection error. Obviously, parts of people shouldn’t be flickering in green. The projectionist even pauses the film for a moment to fix the problem. But then, something strange happens: an older man sitting two rows from the screen in a relatively empty theater—an utterly chaotic spot to prefer—starts shouting “It’s a flashback effect.” You laugh, not because it was funny but out of situational awkwardness. So do the people behind you. But he keeps repeating what you assume to be a bad joke, as if he’s frustrated. The projectionist resumes the movie for a few seconds, and after realizing the problem persists, pauses again. Then the man repeats, “It’s a flashback effect.” As he shakes his head in disappointment, you realize he’s not joking. And then he walks up to the projectionist and tries telling them they need to resume the film—presumably, because the director intended it to be watched with a green flickering “flashback effect” that only occurs on the borders of moving objects.
Now imagine this: it was a press screening, and that man was a critic.
I don’t know whether or not he liked the film or not. But regardless of his opinion, I believe director Rian Johnson (Knives Out, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) deserves better viewers than he received at my screening. Critic or not, if someone is unable to identify an error as easily noticeable as a widescreen film being cropped to fullscreen, they just aren’t thinking enough about the moving images presented before them.
I’ve always told myself I’d never mention a niche characteristic of my particular screening or viewing of the movie I’m reviewing, let alone start with it—but this episode of poor movie watching seemed emblematic of a more significant trend toward careless moviegoing. Despite my reservations, I mention this episode for a single reason: Rian Johnson’s movie deserves more than the passive zombified moviegoing experience carefully cultivated by the studio filmmaking influenced by the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and Glass Onion rewards the careful eye with more than instant gratification to be left in the car after the ride home (or more likely, as soon as you log off Netflix).
I’m not just talking about noticing the plot clues before Blanc spells them out; there is a lot of “there” there, to loosely paraphrase the American novelist Gertrude Stein.
Johnson clearly has a recipe for these things. And that’s okay, because it works. Just like Knives Out, Glass Onion uses Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) as a narrative vehicle to tell a more interesting story about a woman of color– in this case, Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe)– surrounded by a quippy cast, in which about three-fifths of the way through the run-time a major revelation is communicated through an extended flashback that generates a tonal shift away from the comedic and toward the dramatic. In other words: plot-wise, there’s nothing new under this sun.
Tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) invites several of his closest friends to his private island, which features a mansion with a giant glass onion architectural insert, to play a murder mystery game. The most compelling characters are the easiest to hate: Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), a supermodel and fashion designer who ruined her career with a blackfacing Halloween costume; and Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), a YouTube men’s rights activist who brings his traditionally hot blonde girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). Meanwhile, the successful scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), the good-intentioned but careless Connecticut governor running for a senate seat, seem up to something mischievous. The group is met with two surprises: Monáe’s “Andi” actually shows up after a famously bad break with Miles, and, for some reason, the world’s greatest detective received an invite. Of course, Blanc’s invite was anonymous, and one of Miles’ friends is trying to murder him.
If the first Knives Out was timed perfectly with a Trump presidency Thanksgiving, Glass Onion is timed perfectly with Elon Musk’s destruction of Twitter. Bron’s resemblance to Musk is almost too canny: he wears a blood diamond at one point and makes his billions in tech despite being an idiot. The sequel forgoes the holiday dining room table talk of its predecessor for corrosive friendships and “toxic behaviors.” That’s not to say they aren’t connected to larger social forces. They are. The cannibalizing forces of capitalism trumpeted by Musk types and their ever-growing reach, the vexing powers of the tech industry and uber-masculinity, the rickety nature of new tech, and the way all of these consume the lives of the people who believe them are nothing but poison to the relationships that hold lives together. When capitalism commodifies relationships, in other words, people become easily discarded commodities.
In one trick of editing genius, the spying Duke looks shattered the first time we see Whiskey seduce Miles in bed. His world now looks bleak. After later revelations about Duke’s career dependency on Miles, when the scene plays out the second time around we see Duke manipulating Whiskey to sleep with the billionaire for the sake of his YouTube channel. He looks more relieved and hopeful than broken or distraught. The trashy, disposable, Capitalistic way he treats his partner fundamentally changes our interpretation of the scene. Duke’s a “shit-head,” to use the words of one character. That might as well mean he’s unable to relate to people, even his own friends, from a position fundamentally alien to the potential to profit.
All of this is to say: if you give Glass Onion your unfettered attention and a mind primed for engagement rather than being turned off, I expect that you’ll enjoy a carefully constructed mystery that probes at the twisted way our basic modes of interacting with each other have become distorted in the era of capitalism.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
dir. Rian Johnson
In theaters this week only (playing locally at AMC Boston Common, AMC Assembly Row, and Regal Fenway). Comes to Netflix on December 23.