Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery might be one of the worst written movies I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong. The cast goes for it. Janelle Monáe crushes it. And there’s some breezy, fun filmmaking. I’m sure there are many people who will watch Glass Onion and be entertained for 139 minutes then move on with their lives. But I’m not one of them. I was angry. And now Glass Onion will haunt me for the rest of my days.
And I hate to say that. I remember when Looper came out, I was proclaiming Rian Johnson as this tremendous talent to look out for. Looper was interesting, patient, dynamic, daring. Then I absolutely loathed Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But Knives Out! That was redemption. Even though it’s a completely different genre than Looper, the original Knives Out was, I think, as cutting edge. It had that same craftsmanship to it. Which had me making excuses about Last Jedi and ready to re-embrace Rian Johnson as a filmmaker I’m a fan of.
Now, here we are. Glass Onion. What the hell.
[Author note: It’s December 27th and this article has received more attention than I ever expected. Whether you agree or disagree with what follows, I appreciate you taking the time to read it. Have a great end of 2022 and start of 2023!]
- Benoit Blanc – Daniel Craig
- Miles Bron – Edward Norton
- Helen Brand/Andi – Janelle Monáe
- Birdie Jay – Kate Hudson
- Peg – Jessica Henwick
- Lionel Toussaint – Leslie Odom Jr.
- Claire Debella – Kathryn Hahn
- Duke Cody – Dave Bautista
- Whiskey – Madelyn Cline
- Writer – Rian Johnson
- Director – Rian Johnson
It’s just dumb
Nearing the end of Glass Onion, Benoit Blanc delivers his big speech where he reveals who killed Duke. Exasperated by Miles Bron, Blanc calls out how dumb this whole thing is. To which Bridie Jay says, “It’s so dumb, it’s brilliant!” Blanc shouts back, “No, it’s just dumb.”
Think about that for a second. What did Blanc just call dumb? Not Miles Bron. It’s the whole situation. All the events of the movie we’ve been watching. The world’s greatest detective has gathered the details, assessed the people involved, and his judgment of the situation is that it’s f***ing stupid.
And, look, to be fair, there is a reason things are so dumb. Thematically, Glass Onion is showing how terrible people gain power. Each of the “best friends” are wearing golden handcuffs and only nice to Miles because he’s made their careers. In a way, it’s a Trumpian tale. Where someone rises to the top and others just go along with everything the leader does because if they speak up they’re cut out. Ultimately, the film shows how the inversion is true. The cronies actually have more power than they think. If they were to just raise their hands and do the right thing, wouldn’t everything be better?
The concept is fine. It could make for a great movie. It’s just the execution that’s so stupid Johnson himself has dialogue pointing to how stupid it is.
If you spend any time learning how to write, one thing that comes up is perspective. Whose perspective is the story written from? That leads to discussion of first- and third-person narration. First-person narration being the “I” and third-person being the “he/she/they”. If you go with first-person, you’re locked into what that character knows. If you go third-person, there’s a spectrum. You can have third-person limited, where the scope of the writing is still restricted by what the perspective character has, is, and will experience. Or there’s third-person omniscient, where the perspective is completely unrestricted.
Say two characters are at lunch, having a conversation. In first-person, you’d described the lunch from only one perspective. In limited-third, the same would happen, but with some wiggle room. In omniscient-third, you can reveal the thoughts of both characters, the server, the family at a nearby table, and the spider tucked in the upper corner of a window. Perspective informs audience expectation.
The thing about the first Knives Out is that Marta (Ana de Armas) was the perspective character. With some exceptions, the audience pretty much knew what she knew. So even though a lot of information was withheld from us, that was because the POV character hadn’t been part of those events or hadn’t told Blanc about those events. That allowed Blanc to be this secondary protagonist who maintained a degree of mystery and could be ahead of the viewer in terms of information without it feeling like a trick.
With Glass Onion, there is no Marta. Blanc is our perspective character. For the first hour, we’re made to think “Boy, this is mysterious.” It seems like Johnson has created an intricately layered plot locked behind character perspective (like Sixth Sense or Get Out or Shutter Island). We don’t think Blanc has more information than us because barely any information has been revealed. But it turns out Johnson hadn’t built an intricately layered plot. Instead, he used the most basic and lazy trick in the book: withholding information for no good reason whatsoever.
The first reveal in Glass Onion is that Benoit didn’t receive an invitation like everyone else, the way the movie made it seem. It turns out he met with Helen Brand, learned everything about Miles and the rest of the group, learned about Andi’s death, then hatched a plan to have Helen play Andi and help figure out who on the island was the murderer. Instead of the audience experiencing this chronologically with Blanc, it’s cut out then shown to us as exposition in the middle of the film.
That does a couple things. Neither good.
First, it renders the movie’s first hour pointless. It’s sold to us one way, but none of that was true. Blanc’s confusion? Not real. Andi’s interactions with her former friends? Not real. Compare that to Get Out. There’s a similar structure—how characters behave in the first hour isn’t true to their actual motivations. Chris thinks he’s going to meet Rose’s family and it’s just a normal thing. But Rose’s parents are actually part of a cult that transfers the consciousness of rich old White people into the bodies of young Black people. They’re setting Chris up. When we finally realize what’s going on, there’s a sense of betrayal that’s in-line with what our perspective character’s feeling. Chris didn’t know more than us. He’s as flummoxed as we are. If at the very end of the movie it cut to the beginning and showed us Chris did a Google search and read rumors about the family so knew the entire time and went there with the express purpose of defeating them…that would be a slap in the face of what we’d experienced together as audience and point-of-view character.
It’s the same thing with Fight Club. We’re locked into Edward Norton’s perspective. So when it’s revealed he and Brad Pitt are both Tyler Durden, it’s not a trick. Norton didn’t know, so we didn’t know. But when you go back and re-watch the film, you can see all the ways the director, David Fincher, toyed with our perspective and built to the reveal. It means the story up to the reveal is still genuine because the character was acting true to what they knew. Same for Shutter Island and Prisoners and Scream and Hereditary and Annihilation and Parasite and Primal Fear and Psycho.
With Glass Onion, our main perspective character was performing. And we didn’t know because the movie refused to let us know. That would work better if our perspective character was, say, Birdie Jay. Or all the “best friends” like at the start of the movie. We wouldn’t be privy to Blanc’s perspective so the withholding of information would be fair. Just like in Knives Out. But since Glass Onion ditches the friend group as perspective characters and locks into Blanc, the skipping over of info is cheap. And makes watching the first hour stupid because nothing that happens is genuine. The friends were all performing. Blanc was performing. “Andi” was performing. There’s no genuine perspective until we’re 75% through Glass Onion. It robs subsequent viewings of tension.
The second issue is that exposition sucks. I mean, it can work. Especially if it’s genuine character perspective. The opening tour of Jurassic Park. Neo’s introduction to fighting in the Matrix in The Matrix. But exposition that’s merely forced backstory or a big reveal of previous actions we weren’t shown—that’s almost always lazy writing and should come chronologically.
Here’s an example. Imagine a story where Jesse and Jamie are at a fancy dinner. Jesse goes to the bathroom and is gone for so long that Jamie gets mad and leaves. Jamie is our sole perspective character. Hours later, Jesse finally comes home and explains to Jamie that they had gone to the bathroom to practice their proposal speech one last time. But accidentally dropped the ring and it fell down a drain in the floor. They were so embarrassed and didn’t know what to do and sat on the floor, crying for 30 minutes, before a plumber showed up and could get the ring out. It took another 30 minutes and they just didn’t know what to say. Jamie is angry but touched and says “I do” and they kiss and that’s the end.
Now imagine that story playing out chronologically. Jesse and Jamie are at a fancy dinner. Jesse goes to the bathroom. We see Jesse practice the proposal speech. Then drop the ring. We cut to Jamie waiting. We cut to Jesse freaking out. Cut to Jamie getting mad. Cut to Jesse calling plumbers, too embarrassed to ask someone at the restaurant for help. Cut to Jamie calling, texting. Cut to Jesse shamefully ignoring the calls. Cut to Jamie leaving. There’s so much more tension. As the viewer, it kills you to know what Jesse hoped to accomplish versus how things went. It kills you to see Jamie getting angry when you know they were about to have this marvelous surprise.
This gets back to something Hitchock talked about regarding tension. If you watch a scene where two people talk at a restaurant for five minutes then a bomb goes off, it’s boring for 5 minutes and shocking for an instant. If you watch a scene where someone plants a bomb under a table, then two characters show up and talk for five minutes, you’re wondering the entire time if the bomb will go off. It makes the conversation much more dynamic.
If Glass Onion had just played out chronologically and we saw Helen show up at Blanc’s place and Blanc agree to the case and everything played out in order, then the whole movie is so much better. We get to be part of the case and unraveling character motivations. We get to enjoy Blanc’s performance. But, alas, we got the lazy choice instead. The one that ignores the importance of the audience-protagonist relationship and ignores the pitfalls of exposition.
The journals and other lazy choices
When writing this story, Rian Johnson had the issue of Helen pulling off being Andi. Like, okay, yes, identical twins exist. So the whole “looks like Andi” thing is handled. But what about behavior? These are Andi’s former best friends. They know her better than almost anyone. How do you pull that off? You could just have Andi not talk a lot. But eventually someone will try and talk with her, right? These people spent a decade together. How does Helen, who didn’t know any of them, hold her own?
There are a lot of interesting ways to handle that. Especially if the audience knows it’s Helen and not Andi and she’s trying to improv. Her failures could be funny. Her successes could be awesome. It can be a nice subplot. Kind of like Jamie Foxx in the movie Collateral. Instead, Glass Onion takes a shortcut and tells us Andi was a dedicated journaler and journaled every day of her life, so Helen just read a bunch of the journals. That’s it. Don’t worry about it.
It’s similar to how they handle COVID. Since the film is set in 2020, people should be wearing masks and keeping a distance and worried about close contact. But Miles has someone spray something into everyone’s mouth. No explanation. Just like that, they’re vaccinated or protected or something. And that’s it. It’s never brought up again. Honestly, there’s no reason to even have COVID be in the movie if they’re just going to write it off like that. Maybe you go that route if you come back to it as part of the “Miles is actually an idiot” reveal and it turns out the spray did nothing. On top of all the annoying stuff Miles says and does, he may have given them all COVID. That’s a payoff on the subplot. As is, the COVID inclusion is just a pointless inclusion that adds nothing and goes nowhere.
Glass Onion is lazy choice after lazy choice.
If Andi was really that dedicated of a journaler, then wouldn’t she have journals about the founding of Alpha? If the whole court case came down to who came up with the idea, wouldn’t the journals have carried some kind of weight? Sure, maybe I should assume “no” and give Glass Onion the benefit of the doubt. But the writing in Glass Onion is so bad there’s no reason for me to give it the benefit of the doubt. If a napkin would have been enough to win the case, then surely the journals would have done something?
[Author’s note: Removed a paragraph talking about what happened to the gun. I saw the movie in theaters and forgot about the one, brief shot of the gun falling at the scene where Miles fired on Andi (at the 1:08:00 mark). Now that Glass Onion‘s on Netflix, I re-checked. So my initial complaint was invalid. -1 to me. +1 to Johnson.]
My last complaint is the whole burning of the Mona Lisa. Helen destroys it because it means Klear and Miles will be forever associated with the loss of the world’s most famous painting. That’s the idea, anyway. On the one hand, it’s a painting. What’s the value of one painting versus bringing down an evil jerk who could harm millions of people? You could argue it’s worth the sacrifice. On the other hand, who knows. At that point, Helen didn’t have the buy-in of Birdie Jay, Claire, Lionel, or Whiskey. If they all still sided with Miles, then no one would ever know Klear caused the fire. They could just blame the whole thing on Helen. Even with that group turning on Miles, who’s to say what will happen? Johnson doesn’t actually show us the aftermath of the story. Call me cynical, but our current media and political climate is such that accountability isn’t guaranteed. For Helen to bank on the destruction of the Mona Lisa to be enough to ruin Miles…eh. I don’t see it.
That moment made me think less of Helen. And I loved Helen. And the fact that Blanc just leaves her in a room with someone who just murdered two people…it made me think less of Blanc too.
I went into Glass Onion with a lot of hope, but I found it impossible to enjoy. It’s an indulgent, lazy mess.
It’s been a month since I saw the Glass Onion in theaters and wrote this article. My opinion on the film hasn’t changed all that much. Now that it’s out on Netflix, it’s been fun watching everyone debate. Not just the quality of the movie but the quality of this article. One thing I do want to say: I appreciate Glass Onion being fun. It’s such a rare thing these days. So much of the last decade has been heavy or negative movies that cater to the glass-half-empty side of the human psyche. Comedies have fallen off. Marvel movies are pretty much the closest thing modern cinema has to comedy. And that’s sad.
Regardless of my views on Glass Onion‘s overall quality, I’m happy it’s fun and that so many have had fun watching it. Sometimes that’s all someone needs. If it was enough for you, great. It wasn’t for me. But I’m just one person with a website. As angry as I was/am at Glass Onion, I’m still hopeful for the next one.