Glass Onion Peels Back Myth of Genius Billionaires

Rian Johnson’s latest Knives Out murder mystery, Glass Onion, debunks ideas about which people supposedly deserve special treatment or attention.

Edward Norton in Glass Onion
Photo: Netflix

This piece contains spoilers for Glass Onion.

From the opening montage of Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, we learn that tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is a genius disruptor because of how many different people tell us so. One of the loudest voices of support is Lionel Toussant (Leslie Odom Jr.), head scientist at Miles’ tech company Alpha and unofficial translator of Miles’ eccentric faxes scrawled with such head-scratching brainstorms as “A.I. and Dogs = Discourse.”

Sure, Lionel tells the other Alpha powers that be, most of them are half-baked ideas… “but the crypto kids paid for this building.” It’s a throwaway line that work as a fascinating bit of narrative time travel, as the film is set during the COVID-19 lockdown of May 2020, yet it’s being released in late 2022, right in the middle of former cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX solvency crisis. It’s the kind of timing that can’t be planned, yet just like the musical fugue in Miles’ puzzle box, the juxtaposition to real events adds layers to Glass Onion’s debunking of the genius billionaire myth.

In the same scene, Lionel is one of five recipients of a mysterious puzzle box inviting them to a lavish Greek island getaway at the most taboo of times in our recent history, but how could they say no? This is Miles, the brilliant mind behind the most unforgettable annual parties, the generous investor into all of their professional endeavors. As Gov. Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) tells her dimwitted husband—and as former fashion model-turned-entrepreneur Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) announces to a room full of party guests bucking pandemic conventions, whose enthusiasm sounds a lot like Twitch streamer and men’s rights activist Duke Cody (Dave Bautista)—when you are summoned into Miles’ presence, you would be a fool to refuse. If enough people say the same thing, the movie argues, it must be true.

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Equally juicy is the fact that Miles is inviting them to investigate… his murder! Because of course this billionaire believes himself important enough to inspire at least one motive (even pretend) to kill him. Why not?! His entire career has been predicated on automatically receiving special treatment—what’s more special than death? (I’m getting a White Lotus flashback to the wealthy yet out-of-touch Tanya mumbling about death as “the last immersive experience.”)

But when Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and Miles’ Alpha co-founder Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe) unexpectedly show up at the Glass Onion house, along with the other guests, they begin peeling away the metaphorical layers around Miles the Myth, Miles the Man, and Miles the Legend.

Intriguingly, both of these unwelcome guests come with their own layers of protection, in the form of alternate identities. Andi, we’ll come to learn, has been murdered, and the woman on the island is her humble twin sister Helen playing “the rich bitch.” An equally impressive performance comes from Craig’s Benoit himself, who initially comes across to Miles as a gushing fanboy, eager to basically cosplay his actual profession for Miles’ murder mystery party and falling all over himself to compliment every item on display in the Glass Onion itself. On first viewing, this doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for characters around Miles… but it doesn’t add up with how cynical Benoit appeared around the Thrombey family in Knives Out, did it?

Later, around the same time that the audience learns of Helen’s true identity, we also realize that Benoit has been playing Miles, repeating back all of the self-aggrandizing bullshit that Miles has already surrounded himself with. This is all a distraction from Benoit, who plays on Miles’ belief that he can make himself the center of everyone’s attention; of course the detective who solved the Thrombey case must have been brought so low by eight weeks of COVID lockdown that he would jump at the chance to solve a fake mystery (even one plotted by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, incredible) in lieu of anything else to do.

But that’s the first layer peeled back: Benoit calls out every single supposedly painstakingly laid clue around the dinner table, reducing a weekend of furious activity and crime-solving to five minutes, barely an amuse-bouche of intrigue. So what does Miles do but get everyone drunk on their signature cocktails (how good of him, to remember something so mundane as their favorite drinks from when they were all friends with no strings attached) and steer the action into a real murder, supposedly his real murder.

Duke is the unlucky soul to drink from Miles’ allegedly poisoned glass (with his name helpfully emblazoned on the side), but Glass Onion ingeniously shows us exactly what happened: Miles places his tampered-with drink directly into Duke’s hand, while instructing both him and us to stare at Birdie’s colorful dress. I confess that I didn’t even notice that detail in the moment; my husband called it out, and I was tempted to rewind ten seconds but figured no, I’d go along as if we were watching this in the movie theater.

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And what do you know, but after Duke dies and the drunken guests are puzzling through the order of events, Miles tells us that he placed the drink down on the table and Duke must have accidentally grabbed it… and then the movie shows us exactly that

But not even Miles can completely prop up a lie on his own; he needs the belief of others, whether genuinely earned or bought. That’s the case in the moment with the drink; even as we know what we saw, we watch everyone else accept the lie. It’s jaw-droppingly excellent and more than a little frustrating. But it also confirms how each of these supposed “disruptors” played a role in cutting Andi out of her ownership stake in Alpha: At the recent trial, each perjured themselves with the same party line, that Miles was the genius who sketched out the original idea for Alpha on a cocktail napkin.

That napkin—Andi’s original napkin, not Miles’ facsimile—becomes the MacGuffin for the film, the only piece of evidence that matters (compared to Knives Out hinging on several different physical clues). Even though Helen has Andi’s journals, and her email to the others, technically asserting the provenance of said napkin, it’s as if it doesn’t exist until someone from Miles’ inner circle acknowledges that it does. And so long as they either benefit from Miles’ financial and societal support, or fear him withdrawing that goodwill and influence, they won’t do so.

Which is where Benoit is needed to come back in and deliver the cold hard truth that’s been there all along: Miles is a goddamn idiot. He uses words wrong, he lacks all social graces, and he has surrounded himself with impressive people and breathtaking art to obscure his own utter ordinariness. He would be nothing without these people, and the money they helped him acquire to buy a mystique, but somehow he has twisted reality so that each of them believes they would be nothing without him.

Again, Andi’s journals lay out the truth, which is that she brought Miles into their group at the Glass Onion, likely because of his charisma—maybe even because she felt somewhat sorry for him. And yes, Miles did seem to be the kind of guy who made things happen: negotiating a gig for Birdie, helping Claire get elected, and so forth, each time taking a slice of the pie, a founder’s fee. All he had to do was reinvest those small rewards into bigger and bigger ventures, and suddenly he was playing with much larger numbers, the legend of his success growing more and more with each retelling, until suddenly the larger-than-life persona had eclipsed the mere man.

Because a man who takes such big swings as hosting other disruptors on his own private island for a weekend revolving around his play-murder must be worthy of such attention… right? The cult of personality around this man must not be a cult, because smart, driven, accomplished people have invested their own support and attention into this personality… right?

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Yet while Rian Johnson engages in some delightful narrative doubling-back for both Helen and Benoit, he never does so for Miles. Everything about Miles is straightforward and laid out from the beginning; there just happens to be a lot of distractions in the way. He’s designed to wow in an instant like a flashy sports car.

In fact, one of Miles’ prized possessions is a baby-blue Porsche, which hangs suspended throughout the movie inside of the Glass Onion. The car is not only key to pinning Andi’s murder on Miles, but it’s also part of a clever running bit: It can’t be driven on the island, so he displays it as a trophy instead. The scene where he shows it off to Blanc also seems to be a cheeky nod toward Tesla and perhaps its own fiery controversies.

The apparent tweak of the luxury carmaker also again points to Glass Onion’s serendipitous timing, as the movie hit theaters and then Netflix on the heels of Elon Musk’s seemingly rash decision to buy Twitter for $44 billion (despite several attempts to back out of the deal). The subsequent mismanagement and difficulties faced by the company finally culminated last week in Musk announcing he would soon step down as Twitter CEO after less than two months in that leadership role—a stewardship that has accompanied a precipitous stock drop in Tesla.

Despite these fascinating parallels, Johnson has clarified in a recent Deadline interview that Miles Bron is an amalgam of the general class of billionaire as opposed to any particular person. Norton echoed this sentiment, saying that it’s more about “a certain species” of person that is created: “They’re all around us these days, and they’re really getting lionized.”

We are all complicit in the building of these layers, as Glass Onion unerringly demonstrates, whether we are collaborators, co-conspirators, or fans. A billionaire is only as good as other people make him. Although Helen fantastically disrupts Miles’ career by blowing up the Glass Onion (and the Mona Lisa) with Klear, the man is not fully ruined until each of the other guests raises their hand and attests to witnessing something: Miles putting pineapple juice into Duke’s drink, Miles burning Andi’s napkin, Miles literally confessing to murder. Their accounts replace the physical evidence.

But you need that first crack to shatter everything. It takes destroying something that everyone can see is gone for the layers to fall away, whether that’s an iconic work of art or a paradigm-changing social media space.

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