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What is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery about?
Glass Onion is a critique of reckless power and those who enable it. Our initial perception of Miles Bron is that he’s a genius who has earned his importance. By the end of the film, we see how fake that is. The only reason Miles has power is because others enable him for their own benefit (and misery). If these cronies would just be honest and do the right thing, people like Miles couldn’t thrive. Glass Onion wants to prod viewers into asking “Who in the real world is like Miles, a glass onion, seemingly layered but actually completely transparent and empty? And who needs to be honest about it?” It’s a film that turns the idea of accountability into something necessary and cathartic.
Movie Guide table of contents
- 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
- Written by – Rian Johnson
- Directed by – Rian Johnson
The themes and meaning of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Things aren’t as complicated as they seem
Onions are metaphorically associated with layers. If you’ve ever cooked, then you understand this. Peel away one layer, there’s another. But the idea of a glass onion is that the layers don’t matter. You can see all the way through. Meaning this thing that seemed complex is actually obvious and straightforward.
We see how this applies to Miles Bron. We’re told he’s a genius. He has the confidence and eccentricities you’d associate with someone who is a genius. But he kind of seems like an idiot. Nothing he says or does conveys incredible intelligence. The more we peel him back, the less impressive he becomes. Which can feel jarring. Isn’t he a genius? We’re told he’s a genius? You can wring your hands in confusion, or just accept the evidence. If this person sounds like and acts like someone of basic intelligence, then he’s probably not a genius. It’s a glass onion situation. Things are what they appear to be, and aren’t what they’re not.
It’s similar to the idea of Occam’s razor. The philosophical concept that the simpler answer is probably the best one. Which makes sense on a practical level. If you open up the fridge and see all the milk is gone, what’s more likely: someone in the house drank the milk or a complete stranger broke into the house and drank the milk then left? The first option is straight forward. The second option relies on a stranger finding their way into your house, then deciding to drink milk, then leave, without being seen or heard and doing nothing else. It’s not impossible. But for all those variables to play out—it’s unlikely. It’s like the difference between guessing a number between 1 and 10 versus guessing seven numbers between 1 and 1,000.
When you watch Glass Onion, the most obvious answer is Miles is the villain. As we meet more characters and the situation develops, it’s easy to start second-guessing. Miles being the villain is too obvious. So you start looking at all the other layers and getting lost in the variables. But, ultimately, no. The obvious thing was the right answer. Not every situation is as complicated as it seems.
Rian Jonhnson wants the audience to apply this to current events. Specifically with politics and billionaire pop culture figures. It’s not a blanket condemnation as in “all politicians are bad” or “all celebrity entrepreneurs are bad”. But Glass Onion does essentially say that the ones who seem like they’re sh***y people probably are. That it’s easy for the public to mistake absurdity and confidence for genius. That these figures often only accomplish what they accomplish because of people behind the scenes. Like Miles had someone else build his puzzle box. Andi came up with Alpha. Lionel has done most of the high-level work. All Miles really does is connect people and brainstorm wild things. His fax of “Child + NFT” wasn’t some genius idea. It was nonsense that a team of creative people managed to turn into a lot of money.
Enablers are a problem but can also be the solution
The core group in Glass Onion is Miles, Birdie Jay, Claire Debella, Duke Cody, and Lionel. We’re initially told they’re best friends. But we quickly see that’s a lie. Miles uses the others to manipulate and maneuver in ways that benefit him and his company. The others go along with it because Miles has made them. It’s his support and connections that allow the others their relevance. Before Miles, they had nothing. So they fear that without Miles they’ll lose their stature. That’s why they supported Miles against Andi. And it’s why they initially stand by him against Helen.
I think it’s safe to assume Johnson’s reacting to the modern American political climate (just like in Knives Out). Specifically the way in which certain controversial politicians and entrepreneurs gain power and stature.
For example, Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina, was hugely critical of Donald Trump during the lead up to the 2016 election. In December of 2015, Graham, appearing on CNN, said, “You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell… He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” In another interview in March of 2016, Graham went as far to say, “Looking back, we should have basically kicked him out of the party…The more you know about Donald Trump, the less likely you are to vote for him. The more you know about his business enterprises, the less successful he looks. The more you know about his political giving, the less Republican he looks.” He basically called Donald a glass onion.
Then Trump won the Republican nomination. Then the presidency. Suddenly Graham said things like this, “I am like the happiest dude in America right now. We have got a president and national security team that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years… I am all in. Keep it up, Donald.” Or like this, “In my view, he’s my president, and he’s doing a really good job on multiple fronts.” Similar praise flowed from Graham for all four years of Trump’s presidency.
And it worked. Trump himself eventually said, “Lindsey. Used to be a great enemy of mine. Now, he’s a great find of mine. I really like Lindsey. Can you believe that? I never thought I’d say that but I do like him a lot.”
As soon as Trump became someone who could affect Graham’s career for the better, Graham became an ardent supporter. Both publicly and privately. Even if he still held the views he expressed in 2015 and 2016. He’s just like any of Miles’s friends. Hanging around because it benefits them, even if they disagree.
On the flip side, you have Frank Serpico. In the 1960s and 70s, police corruption was particularly rampant in New York City. Serpico was an officer in the vice department, handling gambling, racketeering, and the like. Over the next seven years, he witnessed enough problematic corruption from other officers, like millions of dollars of bribes. He reported it to the appropriate people in the NYPD and nothing happened. They sat on the information. Frustrated, he went to The New York Times as a whistleblower and helped them publish a huge expose. A commission formed and Serpico testified. That made him the first NYPD officer to ever testify in court about police corruption.
To be fair, it’s not like things are perfect in the NYPD. But Serpico’s honesty and testimony had a hugely positive impact. Without his efforts, things would be much worse. It just took one good person to step up. And then others listen and want to do something with the information.
That’s what Rian Johnson tries to show with Glass Onion. Our systems reflect the people within them. If those people show morality and high character, then the systems will be moral. If the people turn a blind eye to corruption for their own gain, then it only gets worse. Glass Onion encourages people who can make a difference just by raising their hand to actually bite the bullet and raise their hand.
Why is the movie called Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery?
In talking with Netflix, Rian Johnson, writer and director of Glass Onion, said, “I’m always fishing for something fun that Blanc can grab onto as an overwrought metaphor that he can beat to death. This is all in plain sight from the very start. So, the idea of glass came to me, something that’s clear. I’ll be very honest. I literally got out my iPhone and searched my music library with the word glass. ‘There’s got to be some good glass songs.’ I was like, ‘Oh, is it a glass fortress? Is it a glass castle? Is it a glass man?’ The first thing that came up, because I’m a huge Beatles fan, is ‘Glass Onion.’”
Johnson doesn’t elaborate where he was at in the writing process when he decided on the title. Clearly he already knew that everything would be “in plain sight from the very start” and was thinking about glass. I would assume that means Johnson had some of the story figured out and was in the development process where you refine and elaborate. But because a glass onion features so prominently in the story Johnson couldn’t have been totally finished and only needing a title.
I say all that because I want to establish he had time to draw inspiration from the lyrics of the song. The song is interesting because John Lennon had grown frustrated with people reading too much into the band’s lyrics. So “Glass Onion” was an active attempt to mess with fans. He accomplished this by making a handful of references to famous songs by the Beatles. “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Fixing A Hole”, “I Am The Walrus”, “The Fool On The Hill”, and “Lady Madonna”. John knew fans would hear those references and start overanalyzing, trying to discover some intended meaning. Except, as the title implies, their search would be fruitless. There were no layers of meaning. Hence the song’s title and refrain of “Looking through a glass onion.”
Johnson takes his movie to a similar place. Everything that happens in Glass Onion’s first hour is actually just a misdirection. Layers of nothing. Which is why we have the scene where Benoit solves Miles’s murder mystery so quickly. It’s Johnson’s version of Lennon toying with audience expectations. “This thing you thought would be the film’s main focus? Not important.” Glass Onion is a mystery that’s anti-mystery. The truth isn’t complicated at all. The most obvious person to be the villain is the villain. There’s no genius machinations at play. What seems complicated is actually pretty straightforward.
Questions & answers about Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Was Miles Bron actually a genius?
No. But he did have four things going for him.
- Court vision
Miles was confident enough to just be dumb. And people just ran with his nonsense and found ways to make it into something. An example being his idea of just “Child + NFT = ?”. That resulted in millions, if not billions of dollars. Not because Miles had some genius breakthrough. But because he sent enough rambling stupidity that something worked.
That leads into the persistence part. Miles probably had hundreds or thousands of bad ideas he sent to his fax machines all across the world. But if 1 in every 1,000 was a hit, and he’s persistent enough to come up with 1,000 a year…he’ll look like a genius.
The facilitation aspect gets at when Miles joined Andi and friends. He was the weird guy with big dreams who no one really liked. But then he started making things happen. He found Birdie a modeling job. He got Duke onto Twitch. He helped Claire win an election. And also supported Lionel’s transition from teaching to a science career. He made those things happen. Regardless if they’re easy or not. He saw opportunity and helped people maximize their potential. If you start doing that over and over again on a large scale, well, success follows.
And that dovetails with court vision. Even though Miles isn’t a genius and is kind of an idiot, he still isn’t dumb. He understood how to position himself, how to use others, and how to keep getting wealthier. Sure, he took advantage of a ton of people. He’s not a good person, at all. But he had enough awareness of large scale social and political dynamics to become as successful as he had.
So not a genius. But not totally dumb.
Was a Kanye West mural on the wall?
I think so? Miles name drops celebrity after celebrity after celebrity. He has Jeremy Renner’s hot sauce. Jared Leto’s kombucha. Talks about Anderson Cooper’s birthday party. It would make complete and total sense for Miles to have a deifying mural of Kanye.
It’s possible there was dialogue in reference to the mural that ended up cut from the film after Ye’s recent controversies. We’ll have to see if Rian Johnson ever comments on this.
What did Ethan Hawke spray in everyone’s mouths?
Glass Onion makes a point of grounding itself in 2020 and leaning into the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic. Characters are isolating. They’re wearing masks. etc. etc. When the best friends and Blanc arrive at the dock to meet the yacht, Ethan Hawke has each of them receive some sort of spray. Hawke then explains no one will need masks beyond that point. The implication is that Miles is so wealthy he already had access to a COVID vaccine/blocker. Blanc tries to get more information but Hawke doesn’t explain any further and the film never elaborates on what the spray is.
Is Benoit Blanc gay?
In Knives Out, Blanc wasn’t really characterized beyond being a great detective with a healthy moral compass. We didn’t learn anything about his life. And that was fine because he wasn’t the protagonist, Marta was. But in Glass Onion, Blanc is the main character. So he needs to be humanized a bit more.
Back in October of 2022, a month ahead of Glass Onion’s release, Rian Johnson did a press screening in London. As people just saw the movie and noticed Blanc living with Hugh Grant, someone asked if that meant Blanc was gay. Johnson’s response? “Yes, he obviously is.”
Who is Phil Glass?
Miles makes a quick mention to “Phil Glass” when explaining the hourly chime. Phillip Glass is a renowned composer, probably the most well-known of the 20th century. His contemporary approach to classical music is rooted in minimalism. And is often subtle yet dramatic. He’s conducted a number of film scores, so even if someone isn’t familiar with Glass by name they’ve probably heard his work at some point. The Truman Show has Glass compositions. Candyman (1992). Secret Window. The Illusionist. Beyond film, Glass’s music was in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV, and even Netflix’s hit TV show Stranger Things.
Does Miles Bron actually suffer consequences?
Good question. It’s implied that he will. Because Johnson doesn’t include a scene where we see Bron arrested or facing public backlash, all we can do is assume that Helen’s prophecy—that the burning of the Mona Lisa will ruin Bron and Klear—will come true. Especially since we see his friends begin to turn on him. Of course, you can make a cynical argument that someone like Bron probably has a ton of fans and connections and could spin this in a way where the consequences are minimal. But the movie also never shows us that. And because the tone of the film isn’t really that cynical but ends in a “bad guy loses, heroes win” kind of way, we should probably assume a non-cynical conclusion.
Who was Derol? What was he doing on the island?
My best guess is that Derol is another “glass onion”. The title refers to something that seems layered but is actually completely obvious (our explanation). For audiences who have watched a mystery before, Derol seems like he might play a bigger role. Like a Chekhov’s Gun kind of thing. “How will Derol impact the story? What role is he going to play?” Especially because we keep forgetting about him only for Johnson to work Derol into a scene. But, ultimately, Derol does nothing. He’s not even really a red herring. He’s just legitimately a guy who hangs out on the island. That’s it. What he seemed like he was, he was. I like to think the character’s a nod to The Beatles’ song the film is named after (read more about it).
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!