In this section of the Colossus Movie Guide for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, we talk about the themes that help us understand the film and what we take away from it.
Important themes of Glass Onion
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. (They even made a movie about it, starring Al Pacino).Watch on:
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.
Write a response