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Glass Onion: Liberalism’s Dream

Netflix’s new movie, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, is the ruling class’s dream about itself.

Jason Koslowski

January 4, 2023
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The cast of "Glass Onion" lounge next to a pool.

Note: This review contains spoilers for Glass Onion.

Netflix’s new film Glass Onion, sequel to the murder mystery Knives Out, is proving to be one of the more popular movies Netflix ever financed.

Glass Onion is a homage: to Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but to the noir genre, too. It’s stocked, for example, with femmes fatales, identical twins, fake deaths, and convoluted, outlandish plot twists — all playing out with tongue planted firmly in cheek. 

The drama revolves around eccentric billionaire Miles (Ed Norton), who invites a small circle of people to a murder-mystery game at his island compound (called the Glass Onion). He’s used his fabulous wealth to bankroll, and control, all the “friends” he’s invited: Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), a scientist working for Miles’ corporation; Duke (Dave Bautista), a far-right, gun-toting social media star, alongside trophy girlfriend Whisky (Madelyn Cline); Birdie (Kate Hudson), a washed-up model, with assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) in tow; and Claire (Kathryn Hahn), a politician running for election. 

Miles made his wealth from an idea he stole from Andi (Janelle Monáe) — an idea that’s the MacGuffin at the center of the story. Andi appears on the island to settle the score. There, too, is the world-famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who immediately ruins Miles’ game by solving it before it’s started. Then the mayhem begins: bodies pile up; each person is a suspect with a motive; it’s up to Blanc to solve the mystery.

Politics Is Concentrated Economics; Art Is Concentrated Politics

The movie is a satire of the political moment in the United States. But that means it shares with that moment all its shallowness. It’s what medieval Christian theater called a morality play, with all the subtlety of medieval morality theater.

The characters aren’t quite characters; they’re types. There’s little to them, since they stand in for real political figures and forces, seen through the eyes of liberalism today. The most obvious is Miles, a satirical stand-in for Elon Musk and for the rich that rule the Silicon Valley tech-sector. Claire is a type for the politicians compromised in service to the ruling rich. Duke is a satire of Joe Rogan mashed up with the Far Right in general. He waves a gun and spouts misogynistic pablum. Birdie, a Trump-like celebrity, ticks off racist tweets while making millions on sweatshops. There are exceptions: Whisky turns out to be sharp, even cunning, for a moment, but three dimensions collapse back to two soon afterwards.

Schadenfreude kicks in early. Birdie, channeling Trump, says she speaks her unfiltered “truth.” Detective Blanc cuts her down, quipping that no one should confuse thoughtless speech with truth. Zing! Then the gun-toting Duke dies an ugly death. Zing! Miles, standing in for Musk, seems smart, but Blanc cuts him down too: “He’s an idiot!” Zing! And so on. 

In this way, the movie is like a liberal dream, with all the trappings of imaginary revenge. It’s the kind of movie that gets made after the apparent victory of liberalism after 2020, when Trump was voted out of office: it’s a celebration. (Of course, It bears the marks of other dreams too. It gives another version of the capitalist myth that corporations are based on the pure genius of their founders.) 

It’s not too surprising why the movie works like this. What we could call the “forces of cultural production and distribution”— the cameras, the sound systems, the website the movie plays on, the checks that pay for the editors and makeup artists, the grips and the cooks — all these are held firmly in the hands of the CEOs of a corporation that trades on Wall Street, in a movie overseen by a director paid by them. It’s probably relevant that, in all, the people who own these means of culture production donated about $8 million to the Democratic Party in 2020, about $6 million more than in 2016. It’s a movie that perfectly toes the line of the heads of the media factory that made it.

Glass Onion, in other words, is saturated with the political forces that structure our world. But that’s true of all works of culture. They’re created by workers using means of culture production and distribution usually owned and controlled by the bosses, from inside clashing class forces. All movies and songs and books are welded together from ideas found inside an open or underlying class battle, reacting in one way or another to those clashing forces. They’re marked tip to tail by contradictions, gaps, and distortions by those forces, which usually remain unconscious and hidden within, like magnets polarizing a surface of iron filaments. 

But it’s just for that reason that Glass Onion has something interesting in it. Or rather, it’s interesting because of what it can’t quite hide. The whole movie is itself a kind of mystery waiting to be solved. Lurking inside it, deforming the surface, from start to finish, something is missing. 

Who runs the island? At the beginning of the movie, Claire asks Miles this exact question: “How many people does it take to run this place?” Dozens, of course. They just all happen to be gone. They have to be gone for the movie to work. What kind of murder mystery would it be if the entire staff of the island saw everything? 

So who pours the drinks? Who cooks the dinners? Who fixes the broken furniture? Who skims the pool or fixes the lights, or puts the corpses on ice so they don’t start to stink? If Miles lives on an island with just a fax machine, who does everything in his company? We see a Zoom call of executives, and one scientist. Is that all? What does his company even do? And on and on.

The masses have to be kept out of sight. Otherwise they’d overwhelm the script: they’d not only find the murderer instantly. They’d also have ideas of their own about the fabulous wealth around them. Maybe they’d start killing people. So whatever problems arise with the political cardboard cutouts marching around in the movie, it’ll be those cutouts — especially the detective, working for the police, at the center of the movie — who will solve things. Better for the masses to stay out of sight. 

It’s true, though, that from time to time the masses do get their own cardboard cutouts, too — like Helen, sister to femme fatale Andi, who shows up in a pivotal way later in the movie. (I’ll say more about her in a minute). Darrel is a key figure: he’s a slacker crashing on the island. An everyman, he’s “going through some things,” so he wanders in and out of scenes for comedic relief. Darrel is like a crystal of the liberal corporate view of the masses: confused and helpless. It’s the translation into comedy of the photographic style The New York Times uses in special-interest articles about the poor: hands folded, a look of helpless concern or grimness playing on their face, as they stare off into the distance, contemplating their bad luck.The grim look is just reversed here, though the passive helplessness remains. 

And all of this means: the movie (like every work of art or culture) is political regardless of any overt statements on politics. The Far Right gets its comeuppance: the right-wing troll, the racist celebrity, the compromised politician, etc. The detective saves the day (he’s a cop, for all intents and purposes; he reminds us twice, in the middle and end of the movie, that he’s an agent of the law working hand in hand with the cops). It’s a movie version of the modern capitalist state’s politics shared by both major parties: the masses are to be marched on and (mostly) off the political stage when they’re needed. It’s the state’s functionaries who should do all the real acting. 

And this leads to another strange warping on the surface of the movie: the way it addresses the major political clashes of 2020-2021. 

Lurking just under the surface, in the schadenfreude of Birdie’s humiliation or Duke’s murder, is the storming of the Capitol by a rioting Far Right. The movie is playing at just desserts: when Miles’ ultra-rich compound is smashed at the end — in its own kind of riot — the tables are turned. 

But the movie also responds, silently and in a highly distorted way, to something else that happened in that timeframe: the biggest social protest movement in the history of the country, the Black-led BLM uprising against murderous police. Like in the most important scene of Hamlet, the masses stormed the political stage; they entered politics for a moment. At one point, protestors torched a cop station. For a moment, the torching of a police station was more popular than the entire U.S. Congress

Glass Onion is a movie about the police in their relationship to a Black person. Helen is also a type: a member of the working class (she’s a teacher) and a person of color, she stands in for the “ordinary” person. A cop (Blanc, who reminds us twice he’s working arm in arm with the police) saves one of the two Black people in the movie. They torch the billionaire’s palace together. Zing!

No one expects faithful history from Netflix movies, just like no one turns to Hamlet to learn about the history of medieval Danish royalty. But as Marxists we can recognize here the liberal ruling class’s dream about 2020, rewriting history chock full of imaginary wish fulfillments. 

Class Struggle, Artistic Fuel 

More interesting than Glass Onion’s political satire is what’s not allowed to be there: the surging, roiling masses that just a couple of years ago shook the country and struck fear into the leaders of both capitalist parties. 

That’s because the working class and oppressed in the U.S. haven’t made themselves, once more, into a force that the ruling rich have to reckon with. When the BLM uprising was coopted by the Democratic Party to “get out the vote,” the masses were ushered back into the wings. 

Lurking behind the images of the film are real-life Benoit Blancs: the producers and owners of Netflix. These are artistic cops whose beat is the moving image, making sure the masses stay out of sight until they’re called for — one of the deepest desires of the ruling rich who own companies and fund the Republican and Democratic parties. 

But is it any coincidence that some of the most original cultural movements of the last two hundred years came when the masses flooded the political stage, smashing up ruling ideas of how images are made and how words are used? We only have to remember Beethoven in the shadow of the sans culottes, Beauvoir in the social and feminist revolutions of the twentieth century, Eisenstein amid the fall of the Czar, Ellison in the Black-led mass struggle of the 50s and 60s, Joyce in the wake of Irish revolt, Goddard in the blaze of May ‘68, Basquiat in the glow of the mass struggles of the 1970s and early 1980s. 

And the masses may be starting to stir again. The BLM movement fed into a new union movement that has been on the move, with waves of unionization sweeping the country, and in an uptick in strike action. 

Another kind of art is coming; it’ll just take a lot more burning mansions in real life. Cops aren’t going to help us with that. New art will come out of class struggle.

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Jason Koslowski

Jason is a contingent college teacher and union organizer who lives in Philadelphia.


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