Glass Onion Was Disappointing

“Maybe Elon Musk is dumb actually” is an idea that is certainly having a moment, as Musk has been live-tweeting his mid-life crisis for the past several years. I wonder when Glass Onion was written, that it happened to come out just as that wave seems to be cresting (but hey, maybe Musk has even more spectacular failures in the queue). Certainly, the fact that “the Elon Musk-alike is very stupid” is meant to be the movie’s twist ending has been kinda spoiled by the fact that this is now a common opinion and one you would expect Rian Johnson in particular to have.

Very early on they set up “maybe the Elon Musk-alike is the killer” and then dismiss it with “no, his motive is too obvious and whoever the killer was struck in-person, and he’s too smart to take such a bone-headed risk.” And the problem is that I immediately realize this is not a thing Rian Johnson believes and so right off the bat I know that yeah, of course he’s the killer, he is absolutely stupid enough to have done it, doubly so since, with him ruled out, the entire middle of the movie is spent detective-ing four other potential culprits instead. I don’t even consider it worth being a spoiler alert. If you saw Glass Onion and you didn’t instantly realize the Musk-alike is the killer as soon as the line dismissing him was spoken, then you weren’t here for the mystery anyway. Two years ago we all might’ve bought that Rian Johnson was actually going for “Musk-alike as corrupt genius,” but not in 2022 (or very early 2023, when I saw it).

But then it falls apart in the ending, because Benoit Blanc is supposed to have this takedown at the end where he lays out how stupid the Musk-alike’s murders were…and, uh, they actually reveal a strong ability to improvise, poisoning his second victim with his own glass by using their pineapple allergy, thus creating a drink that he can drink from with impunity but which the target will die from, thus making it seem like he was the one being targeted and removing himself from suspicion as the culprit. We don’t see his first murder clearly (it’s the inciting incident, already accomplished as the story begins), but apparently he managed to poison the victim’s drink without her noticing. His third murder was simple, straightforward, and except for a stroke of pure dumb luck, effective. Benoit Blanc even praises it as having “panache” before he realizes that the killer was riffing off of an idea that Blanc himself had planted in his head – but if turning off the lights and shooting the target works, it works, regardless of who gave him the idea. If the third victim didn’t happen to have her sister’s diary in her coat pocket to intercept the bullet, the Musk-alike would’ve just won.

The method of his downfall is pretty dumb, anyway. His whole getaway mansion is powered by some new energy source that floods the place with hydrogen gas. It’s supposed to be a “billionaire self-proclaimed genius inventor’s idea is actually disastrously stupid” thing, but it takes serious effort to get the place to catch on fire. Firearms are discharged, a crucial piece of evidence is lit on fire, the lighter used to do it is playfully flicked on and off a couple of different times throughout the movie, and the protagonist (Andy/Helen, not Blanc – he ties the series together, but as a recurring supporting character, not the protagonist) has to get a bonfire going pretty high indoors to set off the chain reaction. Which then fails to inflict meaningful harm on any of the people at ground zero for the explosion. While making homes hyper-vulnerable to arson is certainly a drawback of the technology, it demonstrably isn’t turning homes into deathtraps, because the trap gets sprung and no death ensues. You definitely wouldn’t want this energy powering urban centers where a fire in one building could cause an explosion that chains into other buildings and causes a city-spanning blaze, but vastly reduced energy prices at the tradeoff that someone intentionally setting your house on fire will be able to get the whole house burning in thirty seconds sounds like a pretty good deal to me, on account of the scarcity of mad arsonists.

Not to mention the ending relies on the protagonist engaging in the exact same kind of improvised crime that Blanc just finished calling the Musk-alike an idiot for. There’s definitely a moral distinction to be drawn between arson for the sake of avenging your murdered sister versus murder for the sake of personal gain, but intellectually speaking, “use the materials at hand to accomplish a crime” is pretty much the same.

The “billionaire ‘genius’ is actually stupid” theme gets carried really well earlier. Early on in the movie, the Musk-alike sets up a murder mystery themed party, and brags to Blanc, a professional detective considered the best in the world, that it’s going to be “next level.” Blanc solves it before the “murder” scene even happens, and we later learn that 1) the mystery was written by someone else who 2) did not know Blanc would be at the party, expecting only the Musk-alike’s other “disruptor” friends, none of whom have any kind of background in solving puzzles or mysteries. So, y’know, this mystery writer set up a mystery for some randos and of course Blance walks right through it effortlessly, he’s a professional at the top of his field tackling a mystery designed to be solvable by ordinary people. If the Musk-alike had designed these puzzles and mysteries himself, he would know how hideously mismatched the difficulty of the puzzle was to Blanc’s skills, but since he’s just taking credit for other people’s work, he blithely assumes that since he got a renowned person to design the mystery, it’s probably a fair match for the renowned person who’s showed up to solve it (not to mention, a renowned mystery writer is not the same thing as a highly effective actual criminal, although it’s not clear to me whether or not Rian Johnson, a renowned mystery writer, is copping to this).

The parlor scene for the fake murder was pretty enjoyable, but the parlor scene at the end is a flop. Maybe this could’ve worked, if the Musk-alike had been set up with a sense of real menace, a sense of being an evil genius looming over the gathering with the power to snuff out anyone at any time he chooses, someone removed from suspicion because he projects an aura of such power that if he were the killer, things would surely be much, much worse. When he confronts Benoit Blanc in the glass onion after his murder mystery is ruined, the audience should feel like Blanc is in danger. When he positions Blanc between himself and his “friends” after Duke’s death, it should come across as an act of ruthless calculation, unconcerned with the lives of others, not panicky cowardice. Give Blanc lines about how the Musk-alike has been living here for months, in a building he built, on an island he owns. He could’ve had an entire platoon of security on site if he wanted, could’ve filled the place with cameras, could’ve rigged it up with death traps if he wanted to, using the same design skills that went into the puzzle boxes. The only reason, Blanc muses early on, to have left the island so unsecured is if he knew that none of the guests would dare to try and kill him. After the Musk-alike is seemingly targeted, Blanc starts trying to figure out why the Musk-alike’s predictions were wrong, what information he didn’t know about could’ve changed the situation.

Then he can be revealed at the end to be a moderately clever improviser who stumbled into power by blind luck. The reason why the island isn’t a fortress ready to protect him from a murderer isn’t because he assessed no such precautions were necessary, but because he was too stupid to realize he was in danger until it was too late. I can imagine a version of the ending scene where the big reveal is that, if you ignore his aura of menace and self-aggrandizing narrative, the thing he holds over everyone’s heads to keep them in line isn’t genius. It’s money. He didn’t design his own puzzle boxes or his own mystery, and his murders are accomplished not with elaborate traps or brilliant misdirection, but slightly clever improvisation with a glass of pineapple juice. The “he just used pineapple juice” reveal is supposed to be obviously stupid, but the problem is that it’s cleverer than most people could come up with on short notice. But if it’s bringing him down from “sinister criminal mastermind” to “exactly one clever idea” then it works.

You could even do a thing with the puzzle box where the Chess puzzle is presented as more important than the others, getting an entire layer of the box to itself, the “final boss” puzzle before getting to the invitation. And on the surface the Musk-alike can sell that as “Chess puzzles were always my favorites, I’m a Chess master, bwahaha,” but the actual puzzle (as it is in the movie we get) is mate-in-one. An earlygame mate-in-one where you can recognize which piece is your queen and which is the opponent’s king even though they’re unlabeled. It might even literally be the Scholar’s Mate, I didn’t look closely enough to check. It’s Chess, a game where you famously have to think more moves ahead than your opponent to get an advantage, and the Musk-alike thinks the best way to show off his genius is a mate-in-one puzzle. He didn’t even design the box, of course, so really all he did was say “oh, and make the final puzzle a Chess puzzle because that’s my brand” to the guy who actually made them.

Instead, the movie is a glass onion. An illusion of complexity, sure, but you can see the center clearly from the beginning. And I think Rian Johnson was too busy taking potshots at his Musk-alike character to sell that illusion.

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