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Photo: Vue Cinema


14 January 2023

Glass Onion: Capitalist Realism, this time on an island far away


Like a lot of people lucky enough to have eaten myself into catatonia this Christmas, I was looking forward to digesting Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. 


The sequel’s original mystery, Knives Out, was an unexpectedly cutting satire whose sharp plot still found room for sincere and heartfelt exploration of class and racial issues in the U.S, aided by Ana de Armas’ impressively believable take on a nurse so pure that she vomits when forced to lie. While Knives Out’s subversive aim is carried through into its sequel, it’s hard not to feel that Glass Onion’s lip-service progressivism makes it the jewel in the crown of a media whose visually arresting, morally hollow critique helps entrench the inequalities it takes aim at. My discussion of why this film falls so short is going to include spoilers, but as far as I’m concerned the only spoiler here is that you’ll have to watch something less mind-numbingly smug instead, like Emily in Paris, or Matt Hancock: Pandemic Diaries. 


Mysteries can be forgiven for taking some time to lay their groundwork, but the scope of Glass Onion is so absurdly narrow that its first act somehow left me with neither more nor fewer questions - just painfully raw hands from clapping at the film’s stunning visual inclusivity. We are introduced to the most racially diverse cast since Brangelina discovered adoption, almost all of whom happen to be among that populous class of people who can take time off to jet across the world to a private island. We are entreated to believe these people met in a bar - that they’re just like You, Dear Viewer. And yet they are mostly at ease with Miles Bron, who made his billions either ‘in tech’ or just from doing a really good Elon Musk impression, on his island paradise, pristinely maintained by what is apparently a grateful and well-remunerated family of invisible house-elves. 


The exception of Janelle Monae’s Helen is a welcome and occasionally funny one, but most of the characters function only to enforce the representation myth; the fallacy that placing minorities in entrenched positions of power will improve the lives of minorities without such power. Jessica Henwick plays Peg, the Asian-American talent manager of her blonde bombshell boss, and functions almost solely as a vessel for the audience, the straight-woman to Birdy’s (Kate Hudson) wacky, quirky blackface and sweatshop jokes, to which all she can do is give a pointedly silent middle finger - the impotence of the spectator. Any potential for investigating the vulnerabilities of young women entering this workforce, or the difficulties of calling out injustice when it comes from your employer, clearly were judged to be of secondary importance. The same goes for Birdy Jay; there are metric tonnes of important points to be made about depictions of women aging, particularly in such a visual medium as film and show business more widely. But Peg’s boss flips between a bitter, uncritical husk of the young sex-symbol who had Miles ‘in the palm of my hand’, and being a part of the go-team clique which turns on Miles at the amnesiac conclusion.


Why did we make Benoit Blanc gay? Why, so we could have a Hugh Grant cameo, of course! A lovely bit of eye candy, a part so easily breezed through, and a six-figure contract so easily remunerated that I’m sure the national treasure still found time to take on his generous annual tour of St. Andrews First Year accommodations. And Leslie Odom Jr.’s Lionel; if the character’s race isn’t part of the film’s critique, that is absolutely fine. But the fact is we are then left with a corrupt, dangerous scientist willing to perjure and cover up the murder of his friend, yet be forgiven at the end, presumably for wearing a cool hat and smashing some glass. 


To be clear, it’s not that satire cannot possibly be made around ‘edgy’ subjects, nor that diverse casting of powerful characters is fruitless. It just grates when the self-satisfaction of casting and overt messages like this come from Netflix, whose personal revolution of visual media includes the remarkable technique of actually censoring their own LGBTQ+ content to fit the mores of countries with difficult attitudes, with the same dollar bills hanging over their viewers. Issues of cultural theory, intersectionality, and identity are vitally important; but when they are co-opted by the agents of capital, surface criticism here becomes another way of legitimising a world in which there will always be billionaires.  


Miles’ gang call themselves ‘the disruptors’, but the film’s conclusion takes them on a confused and utterly feeble journey from enablers of Miles’ evil through to well-wishing misfit heroes by the end, like a proletariat in a world where people are either rich or really rich. Central to this turn is the climactic final sequence in which Helen initiates what is presented to us as an orgy of unleashed destruction. Not minutes after the disruptors collectively decide, in the light of discovering Miles has killed their friend, to continue to enable him instead of the victim, they tentatively join in with the glee of smashing Miles’ glass artworks. Their attack is entirely limited to the visual manifestations of his wealth - at no point do they consider violence against him, or the destruction of his profit-making machine. Helen’s fire, the real damage to Miles’ clearly hard-earned property, is a step too far for them. And yet, once Miles has burned the Mona Lisa and lost his economic viability, they are willing to go that extra step and finally stop being terrible people. As somber piano muzak rings out (the film is nearly over, that mean billionaire Mr Bron can't hurt you anymore), we are given a sense of finality; yes, the rich people can change, and they have. It will all be okay. 


Painfully this critique extends to Daniel Craig’s Blanc, who at least has more fun in accepting the total brainlessness of this film. As an aesthete, however, he solves criminal mysteries because they ‘feel good, like one of those mini-crosswords’. His brilliance is entirely limited not to combating injustice, but to recording it and presenting it in a charming Southern drawl. In the end, as he reminds us, ‘I have to answer to the police, the courts, the system’. I mentioned Peg as a stand-in for the impotent viewer, but the shot of Blanc and Miles’ chiller friend Derol passively kicking back to watch the Glass Onion collapse is a poignant one. 


Whether you are Blanc or Derol, cigar or spliff, dandy aesthete or down-to-earth everyman, the message is clear: watch. Enjoy this fantasy of vengeant destruction, enjoy imagining it; but do not take part.  


Crucially, the audience is given absolutely no payoff for the punishment of sitting through Glass Onion. I’d love to say that this implies an actually subversive, Miles-might-get-away-with-it twist but it’s hard to square that tone with the triumphalist ‘go-get em’ of the enablers’ final scene. Instead we are left to smugly applaud the scapegoating of one character as stand-in for an entire system of exploitation - anything can and will be produced as long as it can create value for capital without explicitly questioning its continued existence. 


Visionary, cutting-edge reviews of the film have already identified Miles as a stand-in for Elon Musk - as if this identification is in any way reassuring or resistant to the simple fact that there is a man-child in charge of a large swathe of human discourse. And a film which fantasises about upending billionaires wealth might go a bit more easy on the celebrity cameos, or at least situate them in a world with possibly even a single character working a 9 to 5. Miles defines a true disruptor early on in the film as someone willing to ‘break the thing that nobody wants you to break’, though we are led to believe that Miles doesn’t know what he’s on about. Does the film? Or has the unbelievably positive reception to Glass Onion proved that true disruption is when you secure the franchise and engender the sequel? 


The film will make a tidy little profit, a shot in the arm of Hollywood, Netflix and the global economic system which stares at its simulated half-death to convince itself that it is still viable. Yet Glass Onion’s hollow wokeness, its emphasis on visuality and spectacle, are a Christmas miracle of capitalist realism, a timely reminder that anti-capitalist discourse, fed to us from a teat somewhere above, actually sustains capital. Roll on Knives Out 3.

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