Glass Onion Rian Johnson behind the scenes

Photo: Netflix

Spoiler alert: This story contains major character and plot details.

There’s something comforting about the whodunit, its promise that every question will be answered in the end by a perceptive gumshoe who sets the world to right. Rian Johnson, the filmmaker most responsible for making the musty genre hip again, likes to point out that, historically, it has been popular in times of uncertainty. Knives Out, his unexpected 2019 hit about the death of a famous novelist, was decidedly a product of the Trump presidency with a plucky immigrant heroine pitted against the victim’s entitled family. His follow-up is underscored by another destabilizing event: Set during a weekend getaway on a private Greek island owned by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the movie takes place (and was written) during those delirious early months of the pandemic. Even Johnson’s southern-fried shamus, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), is having a tough time in lockdown, having beaten a retreat to his bathtub until a new case lands on his doorstep.

Glass Onion is more ostentatious than its predecessor, containing a collection of outsize characters (played by Dave Bautista, Kathryn Hahn, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monáe, and Leslie Odom Jr.) who are old friends linked by financial dependency on Miles rather than any lingering affection. It’s also more intricately constructed with a double narrative that involves the story stopping on a cliffhanger halfway through, then going back to the beginning to unveil a whole other side to the action we just saw. But its most daring gambit is what amounts to an anti-twist at the story’s center, which serves as a reminder that status and wealth can temporarily fool even master detectives, who, as Johnson puts it, have “the same flaw as so many of us — of wanting to assume complexity into something that’s actually just pure stupid evil.” Here, the writer-director breaks down his latest mystery.

In a sort of flashback, we see Helen (Janelle Monáe) and Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) plot the big Andi switcheroo.
Photo: Netflix/B) 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Glass Onion is more heightened in tone than Knives Out, but the two have an inspiration in common in Johnson’s beloved The Last of Sheila. The 1973 mystery, about a group of acquaintances engaging in a vicious parlor game while on a weeklong cruise on a yacht, is even more of an influence on this new film — to the point where its co-writer, Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, was coaxed into shooting a Glass Onion cameo shortly before his death in 2021 (more on that below). Johnson, a superfan, cites the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, with its vision of friendships deteriorating over the years, as another touchstone. When firming up his take on a destination murder, Johnson also looked to Christie adaptations like the recently remade Death on the Nile and 1982’s Evil Under the Sun for inspiration. The “hourly dong” that marks time on Miles Bron’s island is actually a reference to the latter, which takes place on a resort where a cannon is set off every day at noon.

Aside from being an excellent excuse to spend a few weeks on a Greek island, the concept of the exclusive getaway was also ideally suited to a pandemic that the one percent seemed to experience very differently. If the invitation secreted in those puzzle boxes Miles sends out sounded familiar, it’s because Johnson borrowed some of the phrasing from Kim Kardashian’s tweets about her 2020 birthday celebration. And before Ethan Hawke makes an appearance to dose everyone with a mysterious shot (“the rich person vaccine that we all knew was probably out there somewhere”), Johnson used each getaway participant’s mask-wearing behavior as “a touchstone for telegraphing character.” He worked with costume designer Jenny Egan to find “the most ineffectual mask of all time” for Kate Hudson’s Lana Del Rey-esque mesh face covering.

In the last of his “Ten Commandments for Detective Novelists” (1929), author Ronald Knox warned writers off the use of twins as a gotcha. And yet, here, Monáe plays identical siblings — Andi, a high-flying tech entrepreneur who turns up dead of an apparent suicide, and Helen, an Alabama schoolteacher who approaches Blanc for help finding out what happened to her sister — though in Johnson’s defense, we find this out at the midpoint rather than as a surprise ending.

The decision to embrace a goofy plot device had more to do with structural necessity than a desire for a dramatic reveal. Johnson was attracted to the challenge of running through the same basic story twice, inspired by the compositional technique of a fugue, while keeping the viewer invested. Helen wasn’t just a means of starting over from the top but a character who emerges as the film’s sympathetic hero, just as Ana de Armas’s Marta was in Knives Out. “The audience absorbs Andi in one way and then you get this new piece of information that completely alters your understanding of her,” Johnson says. “Helen pulls you in more.”

The document Helen needs to vindicate her sister turns out to not be concealed so much as cunningly on display.
Photo: Netflix/B) 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Blanc provides the connective tissue between these films, but Johnson sees the temptation to give him a main-character arc as “a trap”: “There’s nothing really that interesting about Blanc beyond his function in the mystery.” He thinks of the detective as a collaborator. “That has to be a common thread, that there’s a character who’s the protagonist of the movie, and it is never going to be Blanc. It’s always going to be somebody who actually has skin in the game in the story.” That’s also why it’s Helen who’s responsible for the combustible final act of scale-righting, after Blanc admits to having reached the limits of his abilities.

Johnson credits Monáe for delineating between not just Andi and Helen but Helen playing Andi when the audience is unaware and aware — looking like an aloof stranger who just met Blanc in the first run-through of the arrival to the island and a nervous co-conspirator in another. “I didn’t even realize the amount of detailed precision she put into all of these versions of the character until I got in the edit room,” he says. “It’s like watching somebody pull off a magic trick.”

I’m a sucker for telling the audience exactly what you’re going to do and then doing it,” Johnson says. This meant going “to great, great pains to be shockingly fair” about including details in the first half that could give the game away if viewers noticed them. The red envelope containing the key piece of evidence — the business plan Miles stole from Andi — is hidden in plain sight; when Miles murders men’s-rights Twitch influencer Duke Cody (Bautista) by switching out their drinks, the swap happens right there onscreen; while canceled media personality Birdie (Hudson) reminisces poolside about her relationship with Miles, you can spot Helen tossing the recorder into her purse in the background. “There are a dozen things like that,” Johnson says.

Yes, Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is meant to evoke Elon Musk … among other professional bullshitters.
Photo: Netflix/B) 2022 Netflix, Inc.

On a grander scale, playing fair also means the most obvious culprit really did commit the crime and that Miles killed Andi when she found the proof that he stole her company — a “double bluff” Johnson wasn’t sure he’d be able to execute. If the film’s biggest twist is the reveal that Helen has been pretending to be Andi, its secondary one is that Miles Bron is an idiot who’s convinced everyone he must be a genius, and those tells are everywhere, too. Miles’s speech is sprinkled with malapropisms — Johnson’s favorite is “circumspective evidence” — that he gets away with because he’s played by Edward Norton, who reads as savvy. Halfway through the film, Helen even asks Blanc whether Miles could have murdered her sister, and Blanc answers he couldn’t have because Miles isn’t stupid. “Americans have a very instinctual thing of mistaking wealth for competence or intelligence,” Johnson says. “For all of my self-awareness, I know I have it inside me too.” He swears he didn’t set out to specifically make fun of Elon Musk, though Musk was one of a group of figures who inspired Miles, but it’s impossible to watch the film and not think of the hubristic South African mogul.

Musk may not have been warned about his imminent on-screen skewering, but Jared Leto and Jeremy Renner were both notified about their names being attached to fictional hard kombucha and hot sauce lines. “They’re both cool with it, and I really hope they bring those products to market,” Johnson says. The real Philip Glass was not actually involved in the composition of the hourly dong; however, the island-wide chime does involve another off-screen celebrity contribution that might slip by unnoticed unless you pay attention to the credits — Joseph Gordon Levitt provided the voice of the dong while on set filming a guest role on Johnson’s upcoming streaming series Poker Face.

Glass Onion features more traditional cameos as well, including Serena Williams (as herself) as Miles’ on-call virtual trainer and Hugh Grant (not as himself) as Blanc’s live-in partner. But it’s Blanc’s lockdown Zoom hangout which features the most trivia-worthy array of whodunit-adjacent figures. Natasha Lyonne is the star of Poker Face, while basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has co-written a series of mystery novels riffing on Arthur Conan Doyle characters. The presence of Sondheim and Jessica Fletcher herself, Angela Lansbury, need no explanation, and both had topped Johnson’s wish list (“When I found myself on a Zoom call with Stephen Sondheim, talking him through the rules of Among Us, it was surreal,” he admits.)

One appearance that was never in question was that of Noah Segan, for whom Johnson wrote the role of Miles’ own personal Kato Kaelin, Derol. Segan, who’s been in all of Johnson’s films, actually played a Massachusetts State Policeman in Knives Out. “I really love the idea of trying to get away with having him play a different person in every single one of these movies,” Johnson says.

When Miles burns it out of spite, Helen goes full Waiting to Exhale on his life of luxury.
Photo: Netflix

In the finale, Helen starts a fire in the glass-domed atrium, triggering an explosion with the unsafe energy source Miles has been rushing out to market and laying waste to the Mona Lisa he had on loan from the Louvre as well as to his reputation. Daniel Craig worried that the torching of such a famous painting would be a step too far and cause the audience to turn on the movie, but for Johnson, it was all about skewering the billionaire class’s self-perception of invulnerable importance. Everything in Miles’s home is extravagant in a way that has more to do with signaling his exceptional status than any sense of taste on his part. The mural on the wall of the dining room where Miles and his craven guests gather to kick off their murder-mystery party, for instance, depicts a deified version of Kanye West. Miles’s entire art collection, a mix of real pieces by the masters and cheaply ironic modern works, is “a strange combination of impressive and dumb,” says Johnson, a directive that extended to the choice of masterpiece to be sacrificed on the altar of the self-appointed tech savior’s ego.

It had to be the Mona Lisa, a work so famous that it’s perversely hard to appreciate as an actual painting. Miles’s mistake is assuming responsibility for something that’s priceless, unlike the other merely expensive artwork — something that would forever tarnish his name. And for the viewers sharp-eyed enough to catch it, there’s a god-emperor-has-no-clothes joke tucked into the setting. “The Rothko? It’s upside down.”

The absurdity of Miles’ world isn’t something that Johnson believes he would have known how to write a decade ago. “A lot of the humor in it, and a lot of Blanc’s fish-out-of-water thing, is from me — having been in situations where I’ve been in these spheres, where there are rich people rules, and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to be acting, but everyone else seems to know.” As for what the third film (which he’s also slated to make for Netflix) will bring, Johnson has the setting and some ideas for the characters, but hasn’t “quite hit on the aha moment” yet. “Even the phrase ‘the third one,’ the shoulder slumping weight of that, the idea of doing something that is the opposite of turning the crank on the sausage grinder,” he says, “that to me itself is a challenge.”

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