The Awkward Truth at Glass Onion’s Center
Note: This article contains major spoilers for both Knives Out and Glass Onion.
Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion is as layered as its name suggests. On one level, it’s a deft exercise in the well-traveled genre of mystery fiction, complete with famous detective, ensemble cast, and the lights going out at 10 o’clock. On another, it’s a straightforward social commentary on the corrupting influence of money and power. One layer still deeper, it’s a deeply satisfying inversion of generic expectations that turns the mystery script inside-out for an even more compelling commentary on social structures.
But at the film’s center is an inconvenient truth, a fact hidden in sight so plain it’s almost impossible to see. And if we do not grapple with that reality, then we’ll rob the film of its transformative power.
The Murder Mystery
If you’ve read any Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, or Dorothy L. Sayers, then you’ll find yourself at home in the world of Benoit Blanc. In Knives Out, we have a creaky mansion filled with backbiting relatives feuding over their aging patriarch’s money, only to find he’s not only been violently murdered, but has also written them out of his will. Then in Glass Onion, we have a cast of characters assembled on an isolated island, only to start dropping dead. In both cases, Blanc sails in, disentangles the mystery, and reveals the truth with a flourish that would impress Hercule Poirot himself.
But Johnson is more than a genre storyteller, and he manages to skillfully twist and fold his tropes into new and interesting shapes. For instance, he plays merry hell with the “plucky sidekick” character. In Knives Out, Blanc’s Watson is Marta Cabrera, the victim’s Hispanic nurse, who believes herself (wrongly) to be the murderer. Then in Glass Onion, Blanc teams up with an African-American schoolteacher named Helen Brand, the twin sister of Andi Brand, the murderer’s first victim. Throughout the first half of the film, we’re led to believe that Helen is Andi. Then, after she’s shot and killed, we discover through flashback that the real Andi was, in fact, murdered in her home several days before, and the “Andi” on the island was, in fact, Helen, working alongside Blanc to nab her sister’s killer. Then, we discover that Helen survived the murder attempt on the island and lives to fight another day against Miles Bron, the Musk-esque billionaire who murdered her sister.
Over both films, Johnson collapses and confuses the roles of murderer, murder victim, client, and detective’s confidante, to powerful effect. And where that effect lands most powerfully is in Johnson’s handling of a staple trope in the mystery genre: the savant detective’s big reveal.
A New Kind of Detective
Twice now, we’ve seen Benoit Blanc shrug off his coat, roll up his sleeves, and unmask the murderer, only to be mocked for flinging wild theories about with no hard evidence. And twice now, it’s been the decisive action of his partner that actually brings the murderer to justice. In Knives Out, Marta deceives the murderer into giving a recorded confession. And in Glass Onion, Helen uses the murderer’s own faulty “fuel of the future” to destroy, not only his sumptuous home, but also the original Mona Lisa, which he in his hubris had rented from the Louvre. With the masterpiece in ruins thanks to his faulty product, Miles Bron’s career is over and his reputation wrecked.
At this critical narrative moment, where the Sherlocks and Poirots and Wimseys and insert-white-male-detective-names of the world have stepped proudly onto the podium to claim the prize of another case solved, Blanc (whose surname means “white”) does the unthinkable. He quietly steps out of the spotlight and ushers a working-class, ethnic-minority woman onto center stage.
Blanc is, in this way, a new and intriguing addition to the detectives’ pantheon. His given name is, fittingly, Benoit: “blessing,” or more literally, “the one who speaks the good.” Those of us familiar with some old-fashioned liturgy will recognize the Latin form, “Benedictus,” as in “benediction.” Benoit Blanc exists to speak the good, to say the true, but that’s where his power ends. It falls on Marta and Helen to take action.
This reversal is more obvious and more poignant in Glass Onion. Dejected and defeated, their key evidence destroyed and their fellow witnesses cowed into silence, Helen staggers over to Benoit, crying, “Blanc, I need you to do something!” A Black woman begging a white man for justice. Hardly an original scene. But Blanc replies, visibly heartbroken, “I gave you the truth. This is where my jurisdiction ends. […] There’s nothing I can do.” It is Helen, not Benoit, who must move the narrative from truth to justice. So he affirms her, encourages her, hands her a scrap of the villain’s highly flammable super-fuel, and leaves.
Then Helen wrecks shop.
The Awkward Truth
Narrative intricacies aside, Rian Johnson’s social commentary is sophisticated, but hardly subtle. In both films, the rich, self-righteous establishment is displaced by the underdog. The snake of systemic injustice turns and bites its own tail. The first are last, and the last are first. It’s a narrative structure that Christians can easily find satisfying. Like the Old Testament prophets, Benoit Blanc speaks truth to power, haranguing the unrighteous wealthy for their idolatry, their greed, and their mistreatment of the poor and the alien. Helen cuts a path of flaming destruction through a murderous billionaire’s career like Jesus clearing the temple.
And by the conclusion of both Knives Out and Glass Onion, the privileged resemble nothing so much as James 1:10b-11: “Like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits” (ESV). In short, Benoit’s adventures give us a fictional universe to enjoy while we continue to live in a profoundly broken one.
And then the credits roll.
And if you, like myself, streamed the film instead of watching it in theaters, you were instantly reminded of who provided you this beautifully subversive film about upending entrenched power: the powerful. Knives Out was distributed by Amazon Prime, a company whose leadership far more strongly resembles Miles Bron than Helen Brand. The franchise was then bought, for the prettiest of pennies, by Netflix, a company which, like Bron’s hangers-on, has long since abandoned its scrappy start-up boots for a pair of giant britches. Ironically enough, the rich and powerful are profiting handsomely off art that attacks the rich and powerful.
What are we to make of Johnson’s films in this context?
We might write off his work as mere bread and circuses, wish-fulfillment for the weak and poor, a dose of dopamine just high enough to keep them docile, keep them punching their little clocks and spinning their little cogs. For my part, this seems a response both too extreme and too easy, one that over-simplifies the ethical complexities of art patronage. To dub Rian Johnson a new John the Baptist would be presumptuous, but to name him Caesar’s lapdog would be equally wide of the mark. The theme of resisting systemic evil is a staple in many of his films, including Looper, and he’s aware enough of the dynamics of political power that he can readily admit how familial privilege has benefitted him personally. If both his art and his personal life are a conscious sham in service of The Man, then the act is an unbelievably good one.
Additionally, a great deal of the religious art that my faith tradition holds dear was commissioned by men whose spiritual regeneration was unlikely, at best. If the financial support of immoral men is sufficient to drain any work of its objective value, then the same moral stroke that would wipe out Glass Onion would, if consistently applied, wipe out the Sistine Chapel.
And yet, this is not a dynamic we can afford to ignore. The constant pressure of systemic injustice, and the nagging anxiety that we are complicit in societal evils, are real fears in our culture, particularly for those of us who aspire, in some form or fashion, to take part in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21), to see God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). And the shadow of men like Jeff Bezos over characters like Benoit Blanc is a discomfiting reminder that there is very, very good money to be made in exorcizing those fears for a mere few amusing hours.
I cannot, from my vantage point, speak to the moral intent of Johnson, or Bezos, or Daniel Craig. Like Elizabeth I, I lack both the ability and the desire “to make windows into men’s souls.” But I think we will do Johnson’s work the best honor possible by refusing to be satisfied by it. If these films were, indeed, in any way funded with the insidious hope of profiting off our guilt and fear while lulling us into inactivity, then we are morally obligated to dash those hopes. It is up to us, the viewer, the people, the Church, to hear the echoes of the Old Testament prophets and to take the necessary measurable steps to ensure that justice rolls down like a river (Amos 5:24). We who decry Claire Debella’s hypocrisy, do we vote for hypocrites? We who sneer at Birdie Jay’s sweatshops, do we buy sweatshop clothing? We who sigh at poor Peg’s mistreatment, do we stand up for the bedeviled administrative assistants in our own offices? The messages of Glass Onion are powerful and compelling, but we must not mistake the speaking of truth for the administration of justice.
Benoit’s message to us is his message to Helen: he tells the truth, but he’s powerless to act. “Poetry,” in the words of W.H. Auden, “makes nothing happen.” People do.