One of my favorite introductions to a film is that of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (which, if you haven’t seen, you should go and watch immediately before I explain its plot). In it, a Nazi Colonel (Christoph Waltz) visits a French farmer’s (Denis Ménochet) house, responding to rumors that someone in the area is clandestinely sheltering a Jewish family from the Holocaust. The first ten minutes play out, slowly building tension as the audience attempts to piece together which character knows something that the other does not. Then, as the farmer details the ages and features of the family’s children, the camera slowly pans down to reveal them quietly hiding beneath the floorboards.
This is utterly brilliant, and will forever go down as one of the greatest opening scenes in cinematic history. Tarantino masterfully uses the tool of information limitation to lead the audience exactly where he wants them to go: once the presence of the targeted characters literally inches away is laid bare, our perspective on the previous ten minutes as well as the excruciating remaining nine transforms from one of confused curiosity to soul-gripping panic as we watch the dreaded inevitable slowly turn into reality.
Another film that, as the name suggests, similarly aims to manipulate its audience is Rian Johnson’s second murder mystery, Glass Onion. While less of a smash hit than its predecessor, Knives Out, Glass Onion received positive reviews and decent commercial success. However, the film was not without its critics; among them, the one who caused the greatest stir was none other than extreme neo-right political commentator Ben Shapiro (who, funnily enough, doesn’t like Tarantino much, either).
Shapiro took to twitter to launch a multifaceted attack on the movie’s plot, which he called “actively bad” for a variety of reasons. While both the views/likes ratio as well as mocking responses to his tweets emphatically demonstrated that his views were far from widely-held, it’s important to deconstruct his attacks on Johnson’s writing to reveal the misunderstandings behind them.
Most of Shapiro’s lambasting of the plot of Glass Onion has been ripped from this review by Chris Lambert (which, to be fair to Shapiro, he does credit, and to be fair to Lambert, you should read, as he makes some interesting points). They both call out the first hour or so of the film for containing flawed and fundamentally lazy writing. During this section, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), world-class detective and our main protagonist, appears at billionaire Miles Bron’s (Ed Norton) mid–Covid Greek island getaway under mysterious pretenses. Subsequently, an odd series of events leads up to multiple deaths including “Andi” (Janelle Monae), Bron’s business partner turned bitter rival who inexplicably accepts his vacation invitation, being shot on the mansion’s steps.
The criticism, though, comes due to the start of the second act, where we are presented with a twist that flips these events entirely on their heads. It is revealed that Andi’s sister, Helen, had actually come to Blanc days before and requested his help in investigating her mysterious and sudden death. As a result, they hatch a plan in which Helen impersonates her dead sister and takes her invite to Bron’s island, Blanc turns up feigning innocence, and they secretly solve the murder together while pretending to be strangers. What’s more, Helen’s dramatic shooting at the climax of the first act is revealed to be non-fatal, another ruse designed to buy her time to hunt clues.
The presentation of events in the first act, then, is completely overturned immediately after its conclusion. This misdirection sends Shapiro into a fury, leading him to call it “an hour of wasted time.” However, his assessment that this represents laziness within the story shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a great screenplay. In reality, just like the opening of Inglourious Basterds, the first act of Glass Onion is a masterclass in how the presentation of scenes can entirely change an audience’s perspective on them.
What comes next is a recontextualization of everything we have just seen, but this time with much better knowledge of why they are occurring. Many of the oddities from the plot’s first section are answered: Blanc’s unexpected appearance, the mysterious behavior of him and “Andi” throughout and even her apparent death. Yes, this makes the first act an exercise in deception, but the complete flipping of the audience’s interpretation of events using old clues and newfound information is part of what makes whodunnits entertaining, not “lazy.”
The other grand reveal that Glass Onion pulls off is by far its boldest (though, unsurprisingly, Shapiro hates it too). It takes the form of the story’s main conclusion: that it is not some elaborate mystery, but instead that that every plot point has the most mind-numbingly obvious explanation possible. The series of murders in the film were not carried out by some master criminal outwitting our protagonists, but actually by Bron himself, the clear main suspect, killing in cold blood and desperation. As Blanc states in the movie, it’s all dumb: all of us expected some Poirot-style mystery, but the truth was right in front of everyone the entire time.
The concept is almost as brazen as Bron’s killing spree, and would be every bit as ineffectual as Shapiro alleges if this obvious ending didn’t work to entirely subvert the audience’s expectations. Just like its title, the whole film is a “glass onion”: the audience is tricked into peeling back its layers in search of some complex and satisfying solution, but the answer to the mystery is actually utterly transparent. Not even the landmark political mind that is Benjamin Aaron Shapiro (absolutely no sarcasm intended), never mind the rest of us, could or does claim to have anticipated the reveal, obvious though it is. Though that may feel like an insult to the “intelligence” of those with desperately fragile egos, pulling off such a bold trick requires not boring laziness, but genius screenwriting. Ironically, though Shapiro seems to think the plot’s commentary is targeted specifically at Elon Musk, his out-of-touch rant demonstrates that it’s just as much about him: the image and ego of a so-called “genius” being shattered (literally, in the case of Miles Bron’s mansion) by their actual stupidity. And as Johnson himself tacitly suggested on twitter, it’s clear that the joke isn’t lost on him, either.
Design Credit: Lilian Liu, https://www.34st.com/staff/lilian-liu