Let's look at Rian Johnson's 'Knives Out' sequel, layer by layer, to see why it's problematic to its core.
I’ll admit, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery was mostly fun to watch. The flashbacks and twists were playful and clever. It offers some genuine laughs. The cameos were a nice surprise, and its costumes are delicious eye candy.
But then I started thinking about what I’d just seen. Way to kill the mood, brain.
So, let’s peel away the pretty surface and consider, layer by layer, why Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion fails the smell test. To do this, I need to discuss his film beginning to end, so consider this your spoiler alert.
Layer #1: Glass Onion isn’t even original. Yes, the Knives Out sequel transplants the setting from a rich guy’s mansion to a filthy rich guy’s private island. Beyond that, it’s got the same douchebaggy wealthy parasites, save for one noble ethnic type. In the original, the exception was Ana de Armas’ Latina nurse. Here, it’s Janelle Monáe’s Black schoolteacher.
Layer #2: That whole noble ethnic thing. The Virtuous Non-white may not be as pernicious as cinema’s Magical Negro, but it’s still problematic and diminishing. Films like Moonlight and TV like The Wire show how to create authentic, warts-and-all characters no matter their skin tone. Johnson evidently hasn’t figured this out.
Layer #3: Glass Onion is guilty of lazy virtue signaling. Or maybe we should call it feel-good vice signaling. Let’s consider all the protagonists we’re directed to self-righteously despise. Edward Norton plays Miles Bron, a narcissistic Elon Musk type. Dave Bautista is a hybrid of Alex Jones and Jordan Peterson, with better abs and more tattoos. Kate Hudson is a quarantine breaker who tells it as it is with her racist tweets. Jessica Henwick is Hudson’s opportunistic hanger-on. Kathryn Hahn is a faux liberal politician corrupted by Norton’s bankrolling.
Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc tells us he can’t tolerate dumbness, but Rian Johnson evidently doesn’t have the same aversion when creating characters.
Layer #4: The technology furnishing Miles Bron with his megabucks is wholly implausible. Supposedly he’s gonna keep his billions flowing through the release of hydrogen-based clean energy. Unfortunately, it also makes houses go boom like the Hindenburg.
So, this technology would breeze through scientific peer review and obtain approval by the federal government? Bron wouldn’t think ahead and realize that exploding houses would crater his net worth?
I accept that murder mysteries and flashy adventures demand a certain suspension of disbelief, but they shouldn’t insult our intelligence. It’s the difference between the thrilling narrow escapes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the depressing nuked fridge of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Layer #5: Glass Onion is cinematic opium for the people. Seeing billionaires get their comeuppance on a big screen falsely sates our hunger for justice and equality. Lacking the biting commentary of films like Triangle of Sadness, Johnson’s movie is a cotton candy confection of distraction.
Perhaps it’s not as noxious as those DC and Marvel uber-rich superheroes saving the day, prompting us to equate wealth with nobility and subconsciously transfer our adulation to Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos. Genuine art with a social conscience spurs us to reflection and action. It prompts us, for example, to ask why billionaires are even permitted to keep their illicit earnings, as Walmart and Amazon workers lack health insurance, and so many homeless freeze on our streets. Art with integrity doesn’t narcotize us with fake gratification.
Layer #6: Johnson’s film exploits sickness in the realm of film criticism. Call it the Rotten Tomato Effect. As of this writing, Glass Onion rides high with 94% on the Tomatometer. Meanwhile, visionary works like Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale and the aforementioned Triangle of Sadness suffer at 65 and 70% respectively.
In these early phases of award season, Glass Onion has won contests for Best Ensemble, while Monáe is earning Best Supporting Actress awards. What the hell? Yes, the cast is pretty to look at, but these are not subtly emoting, multi-dimensional characters they’re playing. Instead, how about recognizing the cast of The Fabelmans, The Banshees of Inisherrin, or Tár—and the complicated people they brought to life?
Monáe is a highly talented actress, as she showed us in Harriet and Moonlight. But to elevate her work here, over Kerry Condon (The Banshees of Inisherrin), Nina Hoss (Tár), or any of the Women Talking, is a gross error in judgment.
I anticipate the argument that this undeserved critical esteem is not the fault of the movie, and I accept its validity in part. But Netflix, Glass Onion’s distributor, worked overtime to sell critics on the notion that their film is something super special. Unique among Netflix films, it’s the only one for which they didn’t mail a screener to critics. Instead, within a 48-hour window, we had to log in specially to their website to view it. Talk about building anticipation!
So yes, I have to point the finger at fellow critics as well as the critic-distributor industrial complex. Too many critics set a lower bar for popular entertainment. And perhaps Rotten Tomatoes and various film critic societies have allowed too many fanboys into their ranks.
(Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is now streaming on Netflix.)