‘Glass Onion’ is an inventive allegory on the income divide
The next installment of the ‘Knives Out’ franchise will hit Soho House cinemas next month. Hanna Flint explores why the film’s eat the rich themes feel more pertinent than ever
Saturday 26 November 2022 By Hanna Flint
It’s been three years since Rian Johnson took the world by storm with his playfully sharp take on the whodunit formula with Knives Out. Now, with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the writer-director has unleashed a new ensemble of overprivileged Americans for audiences to delight in their awfulness. Where his original film – boasting the likes of Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson – remodelled the ‘upstairs/downstairs’ of the 19th-century murder mysteries through the snarky Thrombey family, Glass Onion centres on a friendship group reunited on a Greek island to take part in murder mystery weekend put together by their billionaire pal.
That pal, Miles Bron, is a self-described ‘disruptor’ who proves that money can’t buy you class or intelligence, and is performed with a precise amount of self-importance by Edward Norton. He’s the type of rich dude who made his fortune off of other people’s ideas and certainly not unlike the Silicon Valley types we’ve seen in recent years. But Miles’ cohorts aren’t that much more likeable. There’s Kathryn Hahn’s highly strung Connecticut governor, Claire Debella; Dave Bautista’s tasteless YouTube bro Duke who brings his much younger girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) along for the ride; and Kate Hudson on impeccably problematic yet hilarious form as fashionista Birdie. You can tell she’s had to do a few Notes app apologies in her time as a former model-turned-loungewear designer. And, personally, as someone who wanted to become a journalist because of my deep adoration of How to Lose A Guy In 10 Days, seeing Hudson and Hahn reunite on screen was a teenage dream come true.
Then there’s scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), Birdie’s assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) and tech entrepreneur Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) who don’t test your nerves as much as the other party-goers. That’s because of the tense power dynamics that Johnson has weaved into the story. Wealth, privilege and social status creates an ‘eat the rich’ friction that makes Benoit Blanc’s (Daniel Craig) sleuthing to find the murderer ever more delicious. ‘The movie itself is not entirely about the income divide, but that definitely has a huge place in it,’ Johnson told me during an interview for an Empire magazine cover story on the film. ‘We're in a moment in history where the divide feels increasingly obscene. Like a circus that we can’t keep our eyes off of even as the negative effects of it become more and more real in all our lives.’
His economically conscious whodunit films arrive at a time when film and TV writers have been taking a closer look at extreme wealth. There’s WeCrashed, The Dropout and Inventing Anna; biographical dramas about the downfalls of contemporary snake oil salesmen and women, Adam Neumann, Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey. Succession has rightly earned cultural acclaim for its biting, Shakespearean-level feats of familial warfare. The White Lotus isn’t quite so malevolent towards its filthy rich characters, but it contends with the vanities and liberal hypocrisies of the super rich within the confines of a five-star hotel resort. Recently on the big screen, Ruben Östlund has followed up his acclaimed The Square with Triangle Of Sadness, a bombastic satire about the uber wealthy and privileged set predominantly on an exclusive cruise ship. The ending might steer too hard into the cynical, but the hilariously uncomfortable route it navigates to get there is a visceral ride.
There’s clearly an appetite for these ‘eat the rich’ narratives that suggest money cannot buy you happiness – that our societal dependence on capitalism can never truly cohabitate with an ethical life. Or maybe, after the last few traumatic years of dealing with a global pandemic and seeing lots of the rich getting richer, we just like watching the 1% get taken down a notch. I’m ticking all of the above.
The gumption of Goa
I’ve spent the last week in Goa attending the 53rd International Film Festival of India and there are a couple of things that I’ve learnt. A short film (or non-feature film as they describe it here) is considered anything under 90 minutes, which is wild but also makes sense considering the average film is three hours. I was at the opening ceremony of the festival, a lengthy televised event where one commercial was long enough to be submitted in the non-feature film competition.
Then there is the accepted habit of people taking phone calls during screenings events. Actually having full-blown conversations while the movie is playing. No one batted an eyelid. I was in a panel and a gentleman behind me not only had his phone on loud (in this economy?), but it went off twice and he still didn’t mute the ringtone. I was flabbergasted by the sheer defiance of cinematic event etiquette to be quiet, but also somewhat impressed at the gumption.
This is how they do it here, I guess, and who am I to mess with the chaos?