Evan Sedgwick-Jell reviews Glass Onion (2022), asking what the film’s titular metaphor tells us about capitalist ideology.
Glass Onion is director Rian Johnson’s second outing for Benoit Blanc, the urbane private detective from the southern US. Similar to the first film, the new instalment ridicules the rich, though this time the familiar whodunit setting of the country manor is swapped for the private island of a tech billionaire, a shift in focus from old money to the newest of the new.
Films in the genre of ‘cosy crime’ have always engaged with the world of wealth. Unlike the hard-boiled urban crime thriller, which sees vice as seeping from the pores of decaying cities inhabited by impoverished populations, cosy crime appears in the first instance to be insulated from any social commentary, set in the isolated environs of the ruling class. Yet it is this that makes these films about class. They locate criminality within the privileged world of extreme wealth, usually as its underside, a dark secret, an anomaly.
Yet Johnson’s films buck this trend. They are part of a recent turn in film and TV, in which this criminality is not an outlier, it is the prevailing mood. Television series such as Succession and White Lotus, or films like Triangle of Sadness or the much-discussed Don’t Look Up, portray the ruling class not just as awful and entitled, but as impossible to understand in normal human terms. The outrage at the very concept of ‘billionaire’, circulating online in huge numbers of memes, is expressed in this aesthetic of the super-rich as alien, their wealth having distorted their humanity so completely as to render their behaviour incomprehensible.
Glass Onion focuses its gaze on the tech class. The conceit of the film is that Ed Norton’s cipher for Elon Musk, Miles Bron, invites an ensemble of collaborators – all riding on his coat-tails – to a murder mystery weekend on his private island. PI Blanc has been engaged by a person unknown, as the playful murder mystery weekend becomes all too real. As in the first film, Knives Out, the central plot device here is an unveiling around 40 minutes in, entirely flipping our understanding of what’s going on.
The cartoonishly portrayed acolytes represent the various relations of dependence on tech venture-capital funding: the right-wing social media grifter, the fashion influencer, the aspiring politician, and the research scientist. This is a pleasing cognitive mapping of capital’s modern networks, though represented in fairly blunt terms. The surprise guest is Bron’s jilted business partner Andi Brand, played by Janelle Monáe, whose ideas it emerges he has stolen and taken credit for, forcing her out of the company they built together.
The unmasking of Bron’s charlatanry is the climactic set-piece of Daniel Craig’s Blanc, as he unveils the reality behind a tapestry of lies in the best tradition of the genre. He reprises a number of moments from earlier scenes in the film, in which Bron has misused complicated words, or indeed entirely invented them, such as ‘inbreathiate’ and ‘circumspective’, thus confirming him as a buffoon, and therefore also exposing him as having no original ingenious ideas of his own.
This scene is immensely pleasing, in that it retreads the earlier ground of the film, pointing out these verbal slips, in such a way that the viewer realises that we too overlooked them. Surrounded by the trappings of power, our minds filled in the blanks as Bron held court, repressing notice of its spurious content.
The ‘glass onion’ is the conceptually overloaded metaphor framing the film. It is both the name of the bar in which the gang of tech entrepreneurs first met, as well as the literal glass dome centrepiece of Bron’s lavish and absurd island. The lampooning of tech ideology in the design of the island is nicely done: there are outdoor anti-smoking alarms (that cigar-smoking Blanc falls foul of), an hourly gong sound heard across the island to promote centredness, and a random hippy who features repeatedly, who Bron is letting crash in his billion-dollar lair.
The glass onion is, however, also the metaphor for the layers of complexity concealing what is in fact in plain sight: that fact that Bron is not a genius, the crassness behind his seemingly intricate plans, the clues hidden in plain sight, and the naked greed of those who are loyal to him simply because he funds them.
Yet this is the moment at which we might extend the layers of the glass onion out beyond the film, and ask what is hiding in plain sight in its politics? Glass Onion’s particular pastiche of the ruling class is of a layer of people in power whose own lies will undo them – who are in fact not smart. They are simply people who, like Bron, got to the top through cheating and lying.
The suggestion is that Bron does not deserve his wealth, while his jilted business partner, Andi – besides Blanc, the only figure portrayed as remotely human and likeable – as the actual brains behind his various ideas, has a just claim to entrepreneurial success. Behind the unjustly wealthy lie those who truly deserve it.
This is an analysis that, even as it criticises the rich, ignores the unjust power structure that elevates such people to its apex. ‘Exposing’ the wealthy as fools is unhelpful; the idea that they are simply ‘grifters’ suggests there might be a type of actually intelligent and hard-working entrepreneur who deserves their billions.
The mocking of power risks the underestimation of a certain (situationally specific) skill in the wealthy, and the raw calculations of power taking place among the ruling class. Yes, perhaps they are charlatans, yet they are at the heart of power, and are able to mobilise huge resources against anything that might threaten their position. The risk of satire is that in rendering such figures laughable, we forget their dangerousness, as well as the danger of the duller, less readily mockable figures just outside of the spotlight – figures such as Bill Gates and Anthony Blinken.
The contradiction at the heart of these absurdist portrayals of the ruling class is that they are at once an index of rising class struggle, erupting irresistibly onto our screens, as well as a narrative strategy to satisfy our hatred of the ruling class by moving their downfall into safe worlds of fantasy.
The liberal imagination would like to see the undoing of its greatest antagonists as akin to solving a mystery; we must expose the real nature of their nefarious schemes, at which point their power will evaporate. Yet the real solution to the (not so) mysterious hegemony of the ruling class does not lie in urbane wit and ingenuity, but rather, as ever, in tireless organising to shift the system that empowers those very antagonists, be they absurd characters or dull technocrats.
Perhaps we need not so much assiduously strip away the layers of the glass onion, but rather smash it to expose the void at its centre.