This article contains Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery spoilers.
Benoit Blanc is not a man to be confused or befuddled. And to be sure, he is not by the final reel of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the second Blanc adventure from writer-director Rian Johnson and star Daniel Craig. However, the hero is frustrated—infuriated even. Midway through the classic expository reveal where the detective puts all the pieces of the puzzle together during the climax, our fair Benoit slumps his shoulders and places his hands in his pockets.
“It’s so dumb,” Benoit sighs. It is then that Kate Hudson’s Birdie Jay, the seeming embodiment of 21st century social media vapidity, adds, “It’s so dumb, it’s brilliant!”
“NO!” Benoit cries out. “It’s just dumb!”
While we understand M. Blanc’s despair over the stupidity of our culture, for once we have to grit our teeth and agree with Birdie Jay. It is kind of brilliant… if as a metaphor instead of an intricate plan for murder.
As the title suggests, Glass Onion is a glaringly transparent story that through layers of distraction and refracted light obfuscates the emptiness within. And to the credit of Johnson’s script—some might even say its brilliance—it takes until the ending for most viewers to recognize the empty suit at its core: the murderous billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton).
The wealthy tech guru’s idiocy is never obscured, at least when he’s onscreen. In the first scene Norton is on-set, his character says let’s take a moment to “abreathiate” while welcoming his old friends and Blanc to his private Greek island. Admittedly, I missed that as I was distracted by the sunny opulence of his wealth in the Aegean Sea. However, I caught other times he misspoke shortly afterward, including when he referred to the Aegean as “the Ionian Sea” and when he misused the word “reclamation,” and referred to Benoit Blanc as “the pre-definite detective” instead of saying “preeminent.”
Watching all of those context clues in a movie theater, where it was impossible to rewind and pause to ruminate on the little miscues, I let them fly by as quirks of character—an accepted anomaly in the mythology we build around so many real-life tech billionaires for being “eccentric,” “idiosyncratic,” or just plain odd. After all, before any of these scenes, we were told time and gain that Miles is a genius.
The first scene of the movie, in fact, is Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) repeating that time and again, almost as if it were an article of faith. One of the unspecified Alpha board members even counters, “This is science, not a religion!”
And yet, what we see afterward isn’t a dull debate over the ethics of an unnamed invention but a wildly intricate puzzle box sent by Miles to Lionel. At a glance, it’s apparent this was designed by a brilliant mind… only we’re asked to ponder later in the movie whether that brilliant mind ever belonged to Miles. Consider this: When he first meets Blanc on his island, Miles literally tells Benoit that “I don’t like to toot my own horn but…” the murder mystery game he designed for the weekend is maddeningly difficult. Not only does Benoit then solve it inside of two minutes, but he also discovers Miles paid novelist Gillian Flynn for its planning!
Everything about Miles is a facade, as flashy as the glass dock that rises in front of his island, and often as ill-conceived since that same showpiece dock makes it impossible for the police to arrive on the island during high tide. Miles couches his stupidity behind the intelligence of others, most notably his former business partner Andi Brandt (Janelle Monáe).
In truth, how Miles betrayed Andi is the real mystery in Glass Onion, the riddle that Johnson’s narrative structure withholds the most critical bit of information about until the third act: Andi Brandt, the woman whose real genius Miles obviously profited from and then discarded, was murdered before the movie even started. The justifiably and righteously angry woman we see provoke and prod all of the party’s revelers is actually Andi’s twin sister, Helen Brand. Helen is the one who actually invited Benoit to the island, which also explains Benoit’s inexplicably friendly, even gushing, eagerness to please Miles in their first extended scene together.
Folks being starstruck and fawning over billionaires is of course part and parcel for American culture. Yet Johnson is challenging the most observant of viewers to reconcile this with the dripping disdain Benoit showered upon the Thrombey clan in Knives Out, a movie that ended with Benoit all but begging for the kind-hearted Marta (Ana de Armas) to leave the WASPy former millionaires destitute and out in the cold.
It’s only once Glass Onion doubles back to Benoit and Helen’s first meeting in a flashback that the pieces fall into place. Benoit will masquerade as what so many Americans are: hopeless admirers of wealth and privilege. And it’s that same odd mix of covetous envy and aspirational idolatry that lets billionaire buffoons get away with running for president, running a social media app into the ground to the cheering applause of their sycophants, and well… murder.
Two murders, actually, in the case of Miles Bron. The irony is that Johnson puts it all there in the first act. While Glass Onion waits until the third act’s flashback to reveal that the only reason Benoit doesn’t immediately suspect Miles of murdering Andi is because only a fool would murder a woman he just had a public falling out with that led to an internationally infamous trial. And Miles is no fool… after all, he’s supposed to be a genius!
However, as soon as Benoit gets to the island (and where the movie actually begins), he is quietly picking up on all the clues that most audience members miss. There’s the way Miles says “infraction point” instead of “inflection point” while offering a rudimentary definition of what it means to be a disruptor; his hastily talking over Duke (Dave Bautista) when the big guy is about to say something about Andi; and most crucially there is even the moment where Miles murders Duke in plain sight of his guests… and the viewers at home.
I’ll admit it: I missed it when in full frame we watch Miles place the poisoned glass into Duke’s hands. Like so many shades of refracted light in a glass onion, there was a lot going on to supplant the obvious: Glass Onion editor Bob Ducsay was going into overdrive as he cut shots to David Bowie’s shimmering “Starman.” There was also every laugh and shout of excitement from Duke or Birdie Jay, all of which caused the glass case around the Mona Lisa painting to snap shut in increasingly extreme close-ups; finally Birdie Jay herself was providing the perfect, oblivious distraction as she whirled around in her colorful dress.
Miles even nakedly took advantage of this by shouting, “Look at that dress!” as he placed the lethal drink into Duke’s hands. And I wager most viewers did look at that dress in the foreground and miss the foul deed being committed also in the frame. Afterward, once Duke’s last death rattles subsided, Miles recalls how they must’ve accidentally switched glasses and an insert shot shows the event occurring as how Miles tells it.
But viewers already saw what really happened. And those who missed it should still be suspicious. Again, we’ve all seen irrefutable evidence that “Miles Bron is an idiot!”
The fact that so many viewers likely struggle to reach that conclusion until Benoit lays it out for us at the end of Glass Onion is twofold. Firstly, Bron is a great confidence man and Ed Norton remains, as ever, an incredibly charismatic screen presence. The second, however, is we’re so easily wowed by the power and status of a rich man that it becomes commonplace to overlook his deficiencies.
All of the guests at the party, including Duke who Miles doesn’t even hesitate to murder in cold blood, help hide this truth. They need his money even as they envy it, and they go along with whatever lie Miles spins to help build his self-mythology. Before the movie even starts, they turned on the real Andi and pretended that Miles came up with the idea for Alpha. They do it again, too, when Benoit proves to them that Miles killed both Andi and Duke. They all see the napkin, as well as how Miles quickly destroys the one irrefutable piece of incriminating evidence.
But they still will still sell their friends out, not to mention their souls, to bask in the wealth and privilege that comes from pretending Miles is a genius and helping the rest of the world believe it too. It is only when someone like Helen robs Miles of that power that they turn on Miles like hyenas at the end of The Lion King. The king is wounded; the king is prey.
Still, given how real life events tend to play out, it’s hard to imagine Miles ever sees the inside of a prison cell for the murders he committed. Too many people have a vested interest in carrying water for those good at making money (if little else). There will soon be others eager to build new layers of a glass onion that can hide the stupidity within.
Sorry Benoit, it’s a pretty brilliant metaphor, even if the implications about our society are numbingly dumb.