The following post contains SPOILERS for Glass Onion.
A good murder mystery can be watched twice: Once to be surprised, and once to see how the movie surprised you. There are clues you missed, red herrings that tricked you, and plot threads you didn’t fully understand until the final solution was revealed. In the case of Glass Onion, it’s only on second viewing that you realize that Rian Johnson essentially spoiled his big structural twist within the movie’s first minutes.
The scene in question involves the arrival of several elaborate boxes at the homes or offices of a group of friends. The boxes turn out to be invitations, sent to a quartet of longtime pals — Kathryn Hahn’s Claire, Leslie Odom Jr.’s Lionel, Kate Hudson’s Birdie, and Dave Bautista’s Duke — by their mutual friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton), an eccentric billionaire. To get to the actual invitation inside, the friends must solve a series of puzzles contained in the box; they start a conference call to decode them all together.
The key moment that foreshadows the rest of the movie comes when cellist Yo-Yo Ma (playing himself!) appears at Birdie’s house. She’s solving her box in the midst of a raging party; Ma just happens to be one of the guests. He wanders over as the box begins playing Bach’s “Little Fugue in G Minor.” While Birdie attempts to Shazam the song, Yo-Yo Ma identifies it from memory, because he’s Yo-Yo Ma.
Ma himself delivers the crucial line of dialogue, when he explains a fugue:
A fugue is a beautiful musical puzzle based on just one tune. And when you layer this tune on top of itself, it starts to change and turns into a beautiful new structure.
When Ma says that, Lionel realizes the clue means they are supposed to lift a handle out of the box, which then spins around, revealing a new “layer” of puzzles beneath.
The friends push forward, solve the rest of the clues, unlock their boxes, and get their invitations from Miles to a vacation on his private island. But Ma’s contribution has a much larger and more meta meaning that is easy to miss on first viewing — because he essentially reveals that Glass Onion is structured like a fugue. Most of the story is told twice: The narrative progresses in a linear fashion until a key moment, then doubles back to the start. After a new scene that reveals a major bit of information we didn’t know the first time, the entire story plays again, now with the new details layered on top, revealing, as Yo-Yo Ma put it, a “beautiful new structure.”
The critical information involves the character of Andi, played by Janelle Monae. Through most of Glass Onion she seems like an embittered former friend of Miles and the rest. She doesn’t open her invitation box with the rest of the group; she smashes it with a hammer. It turns out that a few months prior to the events of the film, she had a falling out with Miles over the direction of his company, which she used run with him.
Miles invites his friends to his private island in Greece for a murder mystery weekend; he will be “killed” on the first night, and it will be up to the guests to solve his “death“ for the rest of their vacation. But master sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) shows up at Miles’ party as well, and he suspects a real murder is going to take place. Indeed, on the first night of the trip, Duke winds up dead, seemingly poisoned, and Andi goes missing. The lights in Miles’ house go out and in the ensuing chaos, an unseen assailant shoots Andi in the chest with Duke’s gun. The remaining party guests demand Blanc explain what has happened.
That’s the point where the second part of the “fugue” begins. (The soundtrack even reprises Bach’s Little Fugue at this exact moment.) Johnson jumps back in time to the scene when Benoit Blanc was “invited” to Miles’ island — by Andi’s twin sister, Helen. It turns out that the real Andi was dead before the film began. The police believe she committed suicide; Helen suspects it was murder. She and Blanc hatch a scheme to crash Miles’ party with Helen disguised as her sister in the hopes that they can uncover the evidence that proves one of the Miles’ friends murdered Andi.
Then Glass Onion replays crucial moments from its first half again with additional dialogue and more context. For example, the first time through the story we watched Blanc spy on Duke as he spied on Miles in bed with Duke’s girlfriend Whisky. At that point in the story, it seemed like Duke had caught his girlfriend cheating on him with his best friend — a potential motive for murder. The second time we see the scene, we realize what’s really happening: Duke put Whisky up to sleeping with Miles in the hopes it would help him get a job at Miles’ news channel. So the person with motive for murder would actually be Whisky, who might have killed Duke because she was sick of being treated like a piece of meat.
It could be a coincidence, and it might be a stretch, but even the fact that the musical piece that lends Glass Onion its structure is a fugue could be a clue. In psychiatry, a fugue state is one where a person discards their true identity, assumes a new one, and wanders off. When they wake from their fugue, they have no idea how they got there, nor remember the events that happened while they were in that state. Helen doesn’t lose her memory, but she does assume a new identity and travels about as far from her home as possible. To some extent, Glass Onion is a fugue about a fugue.
Yo-Yo Ma is not the only celebrity cameo in Glass Onion; there are also appearances from Serena Williams, Jake Tapper, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Natasha Lyonne, and the late Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury. I think some might chalk them up to Rian Johnson calling in favors with some famous friends for easy laughs, but in a lot of these cases — and definitely in the case of Yo-Yo Ma — their purpose is much more important than that.
Johnson uses these familiar faces the way a magician uses misdirection: To distract the audience while he drops his plan right in front of their faces. If one of the main characters had said “Oh this is a fugue” and then explained it, viewers might have been more inclined to listen more attentively, and perhaps to catch on to Johnson’s plan. By making it an unexpected celebrity, the audience is less likely to focus on the content of what he’s saying — and realize that Johnson has just showed you his entire hand before the poker game had even gotten underway.
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