If you’re interested in “eating the rich,” the past few years have provided a veritable big-screen buffet.
This year alone, there have been films that satirize influencer culture (Triangle of Sadness), phony relationships among rich kids (Bodies, Bodies, Bodies) and fine dining itself (The Menu).
The wealthy people depicted in these films are awful in all of the by-now-expected ways: They’re selfish; they mistreat anyone outside of their milieu without a second thought; they wreak havoc on everything and everyone in their vicinity.
The other significant entrant into this quickly growing canon came this year in the form of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Rian Johnson’s sequel to 2019’s Knives Out. In the original movie, the crafty detective with a flair for the dramatic, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), solves the murder of wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).
In Glass Onion, Blanc is back when a murder mystery game on an island quickly turns deadly. Johnson also adds a new dynamic to the satire: The rich are not only evil; many of them are preternaturally stupid, their legitimacy propped up only by the deference of those around them. The result is an allegory for all of us living with the omnipresent Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos. (Warning: spoilers ahead).
The film begins with a group of old friends — a politician (Claire Debella; played by Kathryn Hahn), a half-canceled model (Birdie Jay; Kate Hudson) and her assistant (Peg; Jessica Henwick), a men’s rights internet personality (Duke Cody; Dave Bautista) and his girlfriend (Whiskey; Madelyn Cline), a scientist (Lionel Touissaint; Leslie Odom Jr.) who works for a tech billionaire (Miles Bron; Edward Norton) and Bron’s former business partner (Andi Brand; Janelle Monáe) — receiving a mysterious, beautifully designed package from Bron at each of their homes. The package also comes to Blanc, who’s never met the group.
All of these people have known Bron for years, and many of them quickly make reference to his brilliance while solving puzzles inside the package, which ultimately reveal an invitation to his private island in Greece for a murder mystery party. They travel to the island ostensibly to solve the (fake) murder of Bron himself. But after Blanc instantly figures out the game, a real murder happens on the island. Cody is poisoned and dies.
Then, a twist: In a flashback, we learn that Brand is already dead, and her murder will soon be reported. The “Andi Brand” on the island is her twin sister Helen, who has hired Blanc to solve the murder. After some running around the house and an attempt on Helen’s life, Blanc brings everyone together and declares his findings: It was Bron who murdered Andi and Cody, the former because she knew a new invention of his was dangerous and she had information that could allow her to take back his company; the latter because he’s the only one who saw Bron leaving Andi’s house after committing the murder. Sometimes, as Blanc’s character explains, the simplest answer is the truth.
Blanc admits that he began to suspect that Bron was not all that he seemed when the billionaire immediately began to misuse phrases, mispronounce words and farm out any creative or original tasks to someone else, both in devising the fake murder mystery (he hired Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to write it) and coming up with a plan to confuse the guests by turning off the lights (Blanc himself references “turning out the lights” to Bron at another point in the film).
According to Blanc’s reveal, this lack of originality and smarts is proof of Bron’s motivation: to conceal the extent to which others, especially Andi, are responsible for his company’s successes.
For the viewer, Bron’s dimness comes as a legitimate surprise. The structure of the film holds up Bron from the start: He’s frequently referred to as a genius; not only has he designed the puzzles that determine how the friends spend their days, but they’re also on his island, in his domain. He has the money and the power. The more billionaire-skeptical among the audience might not like him, but on first viewing it’s unlikely that they catch all of his verbal stumbles because of the confidence with which he delivers them.
Under direct scrutiny from the clever Blanc, though, all of the myths that Bron’s friends and followers build up around him quickly vanish. For all of the artifice, Bron is not playing 4D chess. He doesn’t have a secret plan. He’s just bumbling along.
This point suggests there’s something more to billionaires’ power over all of us than just how they spend their money. It’s not only how they use their money to dictate modern work life or bankroll politicians. The ultra-wealthy are increasingly empowered to exert their influence on politics and culture at least partially thanks to many of the rest of us, who are convinced that, by dint of their riches and power, they must know something we don’t.
As a result, Americans often become legitimate fans of rich people, particularly ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs, and submit to their rules, mostly voluntarily. This fandom partly explains why efforts to rein in the political influence of wealthy people, for instance, have been weak, and it’s why people like Elon Musk can feel compelled not just by money but by popular goodwill to take over companies like Twitter, which only furthers their social influence.
In reality, rich people are no smarter than everyone else; their plans and even downfalls are simple. Peter Thiel is funding artists in New York City and politicians in Arizona because he thinks they’ll influence culture and politics toward his vision of a new right. Neither is going well for him. FTX founder and large political donor Sam Bankman-Fried at some point bought the boy-genius myth that he was selling to everyone else, lost a lot of money and landed himself in court. Musk made an offer for Twitter because he was addicted to the platform and thought it would be good to have an even bigger megaphone and now, his companies and his own brand seem to be in freefall. Donald Trump ran for president so that he could watch himself on cable television more, stumbled backwards into the job, tweeted through it and is now hawking NFTs while he tries to dodge prosecutions. Ye, better known as Kanye West, embraced shocking behavior until it lost him lucrative business deals and, reportedly, billionaire status.
At some point, all of these men accrued enough capital that they found themselves surrounded by people who fanned their egos in the hopes of a kickback. But as they settled into these carefully constructed worlds that were built to reinforce their supposed genius, any creative spark or understanding of business or American culture that helped them in their journey to the top is bound to dim.
Glass Onion is not particularly groundbreaking. It’s not really news that rich people can be stupid. But just like Benoit Blanc tells the audience, there’s no point in overthinking it. A simple explanation of a phenomenon (or a murder), stated out loud, is often the truest.