I Spy With My Glass Eye
The Knives Out franchise stymies political consciousness by gratifying the desire for reality to conform to the liberal viewer’s fantasies.
When Benoit Blanc, star of the Knives Out franchise, made his cinematic debut in the aftermath of the Mueller investigation, it should have been obvious that he was fulfilling a liberal fantasy. He acts like a dumb hick, but he’s deemed intelligent enough to get profiled in the New Yorker. He issues pseudo-profundities, like, “The complexity and the gray lie not in the truth, but what you do with the truth once you have it.” Most importantly, his investigations result in consequences for dishonest people. Ransom Drysdale may have been the only character in Knives Out who killed someone, but his entire family deserved what they had coming when they lost their inheritance at the end of the film because they were all liars.
Contrary to conservative reviewers’ fixation on the movie’s racial politics, Knives Out resonated in 2019 because the protagonist vomits when she lies. Marta Cabrera stood in contrast with Donald Trump, a man both physically and psychologically incapable of not lying. Her heritage was an empty signifier. The film’s incorporation of political rhetoric, such as the scene in which the Thrombey family argues about immigration, serves only to tickle the part of the viewer’s brain that forms associations with things they saw in the news. As Alissa Wilkinson of Vox noted, Knives Out engages in “revelry rather than satire,” posturing its banal observations as critiques.
Glass Onion keeps all the posturing, and the ideology remains consistent—the villain disrespects the scientific process, and his lackeys lie under oath. But it’s much weaker: Benoit Blanc doesn’t invoke postmodern literature to demonstrate his method. He never describes himself as a “machine” that “unerringly arrives at the truth.” Knives Out at least gestured toward the detective genre to explore how people form narratives out of objective reality. Glass Onion, which takes place on a tech mogul’s private island during the pandemic, manages to avoid copying the one element of the original that would have made sense.
The critical consensus for both films is mostly positive, although there are conflicting opinions about how seriously to take the franchise. In an interview with GQ, director Rian Johnson brushed off the misperception that Knives Out deconstructs the detective genre, saying that his films imitate rather than subvert Agatha Christie’s tradition. Still, many reviewers have exerted themselves to justify their enjoyment of these movies, which they describe as “purely entertaining,” a “diversion,” and “crowd-pleasing counter-programming,” by insisting that the films are insightful and trotting out tired arguments about how art should be fun. My favorite review of either film sets itself apart by unashamedly arguing, “It’s okay if a movie is simply fun. In fact, it’s better.”
But neither of these movies are fun. Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, which appeared on Netflix around the same time as Glass Onion, is infinitely more enjoyable. It satirizes U.S.-Mexico relations, and it refuses to validate the viewer’s convictions. The protagonist is an immigrant who struggles with a sense of belonging, but the film withholds judgment as to whether he has the right to call either Mexico or California home. On a structural level, Bardo presents a stunning visual narrative, filled with sumptuous set pieces and gorgeous cinematography, which ends by forcing the viewer to speculate how much of what they’ve seen might have been concocted in a sick man’s mind. By contrast, Benoit Blanc holds the viewer’s hand, affirming their sense of superiority over the idiotic antagonists, and delivering explanatory monologues for anyone who needs catching up.
When reviewers call Knives Out “fun,” they mean that it goes down easy. It’s unashamedly campy, and good liberals don’t risk encountering anything that might contradict their worldview. When they call Glass Onion “fun,” they mean that it’s familiar. Because in every way, Glass Onion is worse. Knives Out may be a dumb piece of liberal kitsch, but it’s not without charm. At its climax, the viewer gets to watch Chris Evans, face spattered with vomit, attempt to stab Ana De Armas with a retractable blade. The equivalent moment in Glass Onion, which arrives after an interminable slog, depicts the Mona Lisa immolating in a chemical fire—an image with which the film inadvertently evaluates itself more harshly than any critic.
After the success of the first installment, Knives Out was destined to calcify into stolid intellectual property. There’s a third one in the pipe, and more will probably keep coming until Daniel Craig retires. It’s easy to dismiss the franchise as harmless trash, but I suspect watching Benoit Blanc repeat the same pattern every few years will have deleterious psychological effects. Plenty of thinkers have written about how the entertainment industry constricts our imagination, especially with today’s endless procession of superheroes and space wizards, but there’s something particularly nefarious about the way Knives Out melds with reality.
In 2019, after the media had spent two years covering the Mueller investigation like a high stakes crime drama, a column in the New York Times encouraged readers to view Mueller’s final report as a detective story. Months later, Craig’s fictitious sleuth accomplished what Mueller could not, albeit on a miniature scale. As fans awaited a sequel, D.C. borrowed notes from Hollywood. In an essay for The Baffler, Kyle Paoletta illustrates how the January 6 investigative hearings were scripted to mimic prestige television, cloaking the committee’s lack of prosecutorial power in grandiose rhetoric. With Trump out of office, liberals lost a lightning rod. Many people shifted their attention to the tech corporations which failed to conduct themselves properly throughout the pandemic. As if the producers planned it, Elon Musk’s Twitter debacle dominated headlines just in time for Glass Onion’s release. The film supposes that someone like Musk can be brought down by “proving” that he’s an idiot, as if it’s not obvious enough. (Rian Johnson protests, but the villain’s name might as well be an anagram of Musk’s.)
Benoit Blanc conducts his investigations in the same place where our government officials botch theirs: the simulacrum chambers of our living rooms (Glass Onion’s release strategy was an experiment by Netflix in keeping people’s butts on the couch instead of in theaters). The film engenders a sense that reality should conform to its dictates; that Benoit Blanc is an extension of Robert Mueller and the chairs of the January 6th committee. Appealing to a liberalism that valorizes science and objectivity, Glass Onion indulges the belief that, by collecting reliable information, evaluating the facts, and forming the correct opinions, the world ought to fall into order according to the viewer’s will. Since that’s obviously not how things work, indignant liberals must retreat to cinema for narrative gratification.
A healthier political consciousness would proceed outward from cinema. It occurred to me while reading reviews of Glass Onion that some critics might not be trying to justify their enjoyment so much as convince themselves they aren’t bored. Validation feels nice, but too much of anything gets stale. Knives Out already patted us on the head for being good liberals. It’s time for something new – something which might lack the comforting hues of a familiar franchise but offer the possibility of breaking the recursive loop at history’s end. It needs to happen sooner or later; Daniel Craig can’t live forever.
Matthew Joy is a writer from California. He is slightly taller than average.