Where tech aligns

Imposter Syndrome

Unchecked hubris proves fatal in Rian Johnson’s sequel to Knives Out.

(Warning – major spoilers ahead!)

How good are others at deceiving you? How good are we at deceiving others? How good are we at deceiving ourselves? I rarely gave serious thought about these questions until 2020, when I spent a lot of my spare time playing Among Us. The 2018 video game, developed by Innersloth, exploded in popularity during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Taking cues from John Carpenter’s The Thing, players try to complete tasks on a variety of sci-fi inspired maps while trying to discern which among them is an Imposter, an eldritch creature that looks identical to the other crewmates but is slowly picking them off one at a time. 

Anyone who’s played Among Us (and chances are if you’re reading this and are under 30, you probably either have played yourself, have heard about it, or are familiar with its spiritual predecessors, Mafia or Werewolf) will know that one of the most engrossing parts of the experience is the sense of paranoia that quickly sets in as you realize, especially after a few rounds, how well friends whom you’ve known for years are able to lie right to your face. When I look back on that time, beneath the obscenities exchanged in frustration and the joy of reuniting with friends kept apart by the lockdown, one disturbing fact emerges: I am much better at lying to others than I am at figuring out when someone is lying to me. I think all of us are. 

Early in Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), crushed by the malaise of summer 2020, plays Among Us in the bathtub. Tonally, Glass Onion relies heavily on the feeling of burnt-out skepticism and paranoia that seems synonymous with the past three years, at heart of which is a simple question: who can you trust? Glass Onion exploits this feeling. While Johnson’s 2019 predecessor Knives Out felt like a Hitchcock thriller inside of an Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the family Thanksgiving dinner from hell, Glass Onion’s plot seems at first to be a send-up of the vapidity of contemporary influencer culture framed through the lens of Christie’s less cozy fare, combining the closed circle of suspects plot of And Then There Were None with the exotic locale of Death on the Nile

Blanc becomes embroiled in the inner workings of the Disruptors, a group of influencers, washed-up celebrities, burgeoning left-wing senatorial hopefuls, and bedraggled academics revolving around the planet-sized ego of tech mogul Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Bron has invited Blanc, the Disruptors, and his jilted ex-business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe) to his private island in the Mediterranean for a murder mystery weekend. When Blanc and the others arrive at Bron’s compound, however, Bron reveals that he never invited Blanc – hinting that there is a much more sinister game afoot.

But, this being Rian Johnson, nothing is what it seems. Exactly halfway through the movie, the narrative stops and flashes back in time to provide another side of the story, recontextualizing everything the audience has seen so far. It is only at this point that the actual narrative structure of the film becomes clear, made explicit by Johnson’s choice to have the film revisit and pivot on Blanc’s game in the bathtub: the plot of Glass Onion is a game of Among Us in reverse, as Blanc is hired in secret by Cassandra Brand’s identical twin sister Helen, a humble school teacher, to investigate Cassandra’s apparent suicide, which is being kept out of the news. Helen suspects one of the Disruptors murdered Cassandra; Blanc concocts a plan, using her sister’s invitation, to have Helen pose as an imposter Cassandra at Bron’s weekend getaway in order to flush the killer out.

Glass Onion has a lot of moving parts. The most barebones plot summary of the film would still include, in addition to the twin switcheroo, a sci-fi MacGuffin (Bron’s extremely volatile hydrogen-based alternative energy source, Klear), celebrity-branded condiments, the Mona Lisa, and the best setup for a pun in recent film history. Though it is at times easy to feel a little bit of narrative vertigo trying to keep all the suspects and motives straight, especially since their shared backstory is revealed so late into the movie, Johnson deftly weaves all these threads together through the central theme of imposters, which serves as one of the film’s major interpretive lenses to frame its critiques of contemporary society and converges on one character in particular, the film’s main antagonist and Cassandra’s murderer: Miles Bron.

Throughout the first half of the film, Bron is depicted as a typical superrich tech industrialist: aloof, egocentric, reckless, totally detached from any reality beyond himself, and trying just a little too hard to be nonchalant about his massive wealth (in his introductory scene, he falteringly plays the Beatles’ Blackbird on Paul McCartney’s guitar before casting it aside carelessly). Multiple characters accuse him of living in a reality distortion field, a term originally used to describe Steve Jobs’s particular brand of charisma, which was often seen as some sort of evidence of genius. Bron’s idiosyncrasies are likewise treated by the Disruptors – as well as the employees of Brand’s and Bron’s company, Alpha – as belying some unfathomable intelligence. In one of the film’s first scenes, Disruptor and Alpha’s head scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom, Jr.) defends Bron’s quirks: sure, he might communicate only by fax machine and yes, his communiques are often incomprehensible, but they sometimes pay off. (A hastily scribbled note, “Child=NFT,” led to a major success for the company.) 

In Bron, the film offers its most thought-provoking twist – because, as Blanc and Helen discover after halting attempts to unravel what they believe to be the byzantine and labyrinthine machinations of the conspiracy behind Cassandra’s death, that Bron is actually just an idiot. Bron and Cassandra’s falling out occurred because he wanted to invest the company’s resources into rolling out Klear nationwide and, when Cassandra rightly pointed out that replacing natural gas with hydrogen could lead to entire neighborhoods ending up like the Hindenburg, Bron cut her out of the company and had the Disruptors provide perjured testimony in support of his intellectual property claims. When Brand found evidence proving that she had the initial idea for the company, Bron killed her and staged it to look like a suicide. If the mystery in Knives Out was like a “doughnut-hole-inside-a-doughnut-hole,” the mystery in Glass Onion is like a glass onion itself, as Blanc details in the film’s summation scene: though it might appear complex and multi-layered, its center is transparent. The one who had the most to gain from Cassandra’s death is the one who killed her.

But Bron too is a glass onion. His quirks belie nothing: he is simply a petty conman with enough charisma to pretend like he knows what he is doing. His supposedly genius ideas are Rorschach tests, faxed to truly smart people like Lionel who will project their own ideas onto them and make Miles more money. He is so petty that he is willing to take credit for ideas that were not his own and to kill when people call him out on his deception. Helen might be the imposter at the center of the party, but Bron is the imposter at the center of Alpha; the “disruptors” he surrounds himself with are there for the sake of preserving his self-delusion from disruption.

Several reviewers have noted apparent similarities between Bron’s character and Elon Musk. Edward Norton himself stated that Bron is a mix of Musk, WeWork’s Adam Neumann, and Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes. The parallel between Holmes and Bron appears to be made explicit in one of the film’s flashback scenes: as Bron unsuccessfully proposes his plan for Klear to Cassandra, he wears the iconic black turtleneck and blue jeans combination that Holmes cribbed from Steve Jobs. 

However, to simply compare Bron to the likes of Musk, Neumann, and Holmes seems to minimize Glass Onion’s incisive critiques. Bron as a character isn’t just a criticism of exposed fraudsters like Holmes, he’s a critique of an intellectual genealogy of egomaniacal and irresponsible tech tycoons that includes Jobs himself. Glass Onion is not satisfied simply to observe the obvious, that reality distortion fields are no evidence of genius, but pushes even farther, questioning why we tolerate such behaviors even in people who are geniuses. The contemporary assumption that great ideas only come from people who “disrupt” the established order provides ample space for imposters who can pretend like they know what they’re talking about to flourish. 

The uncritical elevation of those successful in technological fields to public figures with power on par with (and perhaps surpassing) governmental authority perpetuates the technocratic foundational belief that all there is, is material, malleable, and ready to be made more efficient. We seem to assume that the growth of this path to greater efficiency necessitates figureheads of progress who break social mores and niceties, who kick off the ladder of that which has come before for the sake of blazing a new trail for humankind. Perhaps it is not surprising that the road to technocratic idolatry requires the elevation of representative idols.

But, although Glass Onion is clear-eyed and sober in diagnosing this problem, it stumbles when it proposes a solution. After Blanc and Helen’s gloating over Bron’s idiocy allows Bron to destroy the key piece of evidence that would incriminate him in Cassandra’s death and the Disruptors in false testimony, Blanc suggests that Helen engage in some true disruption: using a piece of Klear, Helen blows up the elaborate compound and destroys the Mona Lisa, which Bron had on loan from the French government. Though everyone lives, the Disruptors realize that the explosion will catch the attention of the media, exposing the dangers of Klear and collapsing Bron’s fortune. Realizing that their benefactor no longer has any power, they turn on him, agreeing to testify against Bron and to restore, posthumously, Cassandra’s claim to Alpha.

Is this true? Is the only response to a system corrupt enough to allow people like Bron to succeed and become one of the richest men in the world is to tear the whole thing down? Is it truly justice enough to disrupt the disruptors and expose the imposters? Certainly, idols cannot be left intact if one is trying to turn away from idolatry. Glass Onion, however, seems to suggest that the response to technocratic demiurges like Bron is not just to destroy them, but also to supplant them. By the end of the film, Helen has completely transformed. Though she spent a significant portion of the first half of the film critical of Bron and the Disruptors’ aloof “rich bitch” mindset, by the end, she has become just as cutthroat as any of them and stands to gain Bron’s and Cassandra’s stake in Alpha. She also displays the same cavalier attitude as Bron when it comes to cultural artifacts – in fact, Helen destroys the Mona Lisa with a gusto not found in Bron’s discarding of the Blackbird guitar. 

The film’s idea of true justice is not one found in the legal system (after Bron destroys the evidence, Blanc tells Helen that he can go no farther himself, as he is subject to the law and the courts), but in inverting power dynamics, placing oneself in control over those who previously held control. It is a neat narrative rendering of a disordered account of social justice. (This view of justice was also present, in a much more nascent form, in Knives Out; the final shot of that film is of housekeeper Marta Cabrera literally standing over her abusive former employers, the Thrombeys, as the owner of their former home, though the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether Marta will in some way forgive them.) The way out of idolatry, per Glass Onion, is instead to tear down the old idol and become the new one.

Glass Onion is itself a doughnut hole within a doughnut hole. On its outside, it follows in Knives Out’s lead by being an extremely entertaining take on the murder mystery genre. Beyond that exterior lies a keen observation about the perils of contemporary culture’s undeserved celebration of figures in the tech world and its assumption that real genius must per se be disassociated from dignity and moral excellence. But within that critique – which is at its core a criticism of the human tendency towards what René Girard calls an idolatrous “deviated transcendence” – is a certain hollowness. The justice it proposes never goes beyond retribution. It is a justice without any possibility of mercy, the overthrow of a false god without its being replaced by a true one. It offers no way out of this deviation: instead, we become the imposter gods. 

Lots more where that came from.