Early on in the Benoit Blanc murder mystery Glass Onion: A Knives Out Story, tech-billionaire archetype Miles Bron (Edward Norton) shows off his most prized acquisition. On display in the middle of his island compound atrium, surrounded by several other pieces of priceless art and museum artifacts, is the actual Mona Lisa. The painting is on loan from France and protected in a fireproof case, but Miles installed a not-so-secret switch that allows him to pop open the protective screen. The first time he shows off this feature to his guests, it’s pretty clear that the Mona Lisa is doomed. In fact, every piece of art in the space seems destined for destruction, as they wobble on pedestals scattered throughout the room.
“It’s Chekhov’s glass trinkets, basically,” writer-director Rian Johnson told Marc Maron on the WTF podcast, regarding the setup.
[Ed. note: Spoilers follow for pretty much every Rian Johnson film, including end spoilers for Glass Onion.]
By the end of the film, the Mona Lisa has been so thoroughly torched that there isn’t even a chance for a Cecilia Giménez Ecce Homo level of restoration. The foreshadowing over the painting’s fate doesn’t just come from the security-override button, though, or even the uneasiness brought on by the careless arrangement of the other delicate works of art in the room. We knew it was in danger because this is a Rian Johnson movie, and in Rian Johnson movies, the past has a target on its back.
In Johnson’s movies, the past often acts as an obstacle for the protagonists, and the only way for them to achieve their goals is to dismantle or destroy it in some way. In Glass Onion, the Mona Lisa stands in as a symbol for that past. Miles wants to use the painting as a backdrop as he unveils a new type of volatile fuel, hitching his own legacy to another man’s immortal masterpiece. Instead, a betrayed figure from his own past (Janelle Monáe) exposes the Mona Lisa to a fire started by that fuel, ensuring Miles will go down in history as a fraud and murderer. The seeds of his destruction are in the history he’s trying to cover up, but the means to that destruction involves literally destroying a piece of history — burning it to cinders, the same way Miles burns the evidence of his past lies and theft.
Johnson’s 2012 science fiction film Looper carries out the “burn the past” theme through a time-travel plot. In that film, victims of various crime organizations are sent to the past to be killed and disposed of by assassins like the protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The killers are aware that eventually, they’ll age out of the game, and they too will be sent back in time and executed, to tie up loose ends. When that time finally comes for Joe, and he’s ordered to kill his future self (Bruce Willis), Past Joe hesitates. Future Joe escapes, intent on revising the future by killing the Rainmaker, a mass-murdering future crime lord who he blames for his wife’s death.
In a plot twist straight from The Terminator, Young Joe realizes that Future Joe’s interference with the past is the reason the Rainmaker exists to begin with. Joe ultimately sees that he’s the obstacle in the past that’s preventing progress. He isn’t going to change — if he was capable of that, then Future Joe wouldn’t still be running around on his murderous path. Joe understands he’s stuck on a track he can’t escape, and during his window of clarity, he, too, solves the problem by destroying the past. He turns his weapon on himself and erases Future Joe from existence entirely — a solution only available in a time-travel movie.
Johnson’s next feature film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, again confronts an endless cycle of death and violence rooted in the past, but this time, within a world someone else created. Now living in exile, original Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has had second thoughts about whether the Jedi Order is necessary or worthwhile, given their systemic failures and their place in exacerbating intergalactic wars. His own attempt at rebuilding the Jedi had been such a disaster that it turned his own nephew, Ben Solo (Adam Driver), to the Dark Side, putting him on an accelerated path to becoming the galaxy’s newest dictator. Luke and Ben — who erased his own past by taking the name Kylo Ren — both spend the majority of the film trying to convince newly fledged potential Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) that the Jedi’s time is over.
Rey resists them, finding it obvious that she can learn from the past while forging her own future, free of Luke’s cynicism and Kylo’s bitterness. Johnson likely recognized that Rey grew up as a scavenger, someone who wouldn’t make the mistake of discarding old things without first harvesting anything from them that was still useful. So he used that aspect of Rey’s character to point the franchise in a fresh direction while still maintaining its more essential elements.
“[The Last Jedi’s] heart is with Rey,” Johnson said after a Directors Guild of America screening of the film in 2017, “which is not any of the extremes of throwing away the past or trashing the past, and also not the extreme of holding the past so dear that you become imprisoned by it, but the balance of shedding what you don’t need, and building on what you do.”
The themes Johnson introduced into the Star Wars universe double as a commentary on the franchise itself, especially with its title character. Like Star Wars, Luke had become a prisoner of its past. He found himself repeating the same mistakes his predecessors did, which left him in the same situation they wound up in — exiled and helpless. He’s about to double down on his failure by destroying the sacred Jedi texts when Force Ghost Yoda steps in and burns down the ancient tree that houses the books.
Initially, it looks like another Rian Johnson moment where the past goes up in flames. But it’s all for show: Yoda knows Rey has already left with the books, but he uses their supposed destruction to encourage Luke to stop dwelling on the past, and to do something useful with it instead.
“The greatest teacher, failure is,” he tells his old student. “Luke, we are what we grow beyond.”
The symbolic final destruction of the Jedi Order helps Luke focus on confronting his past failures, instead of running from then. He comes out of hiding and confronts Kylo Ren and the First Order publicly, and on his own terms. He doesn’t fight them or engage with them physically, but he does show he can take anything they throw at him without being affected. His actions buy time for the Resistance to escape to fight another day, with a ripple effect that inspires others in the galaxy to fight their oppressors for a better future.
And then he dies, because in Johnson’s view, it was necessary to put that part of Star Wars’ past aside as well, if it was going to have a future.
As screenwriter Michael Arndt recalled about his days working on early drafts of The Force Awakens, “It just felt like every time Luke came in and entered the movie, he just took it over. […] Suddenly you didn’t care about your main character anymore, because, Oh fuck, Luke Skywalker’s here. I want to see what he’s going to do.”
For the franchise to evolve away from repeating the same stories with the same characters, it needed to move on. Rian Johnson determined that the most effective way to help the Star Wars series to progress was to kill its strongest tie to the past and let Luke go. Johnson’s chapter ended by attempting to pass Luke’s legacy on to someone outside the family bloodline.
Johnson revisited that same idea in 2019’s Knives Out, where successful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) passes his legacy on to his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), bypassing his greedy family in the process. All of Harlan’s relatives have been spoiled and coddled by his vast fortune, and they all have complicated legacies with him, mostly leading to them wanting him dead. In leaving his fortune to Marta, he destroys all his family members’ schemes and hopes and orders them to start over, without the entitlement and power of wealth. And he gives Marta and her undocumented immigrant mother a fresh start, free of the legacy of their own pasts.
Evidence of Johnson’s attraction to dismantling historical conventions and destroying the past — physically and viscerally as well as symbolically — can be found as early as 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, when he was blowing up Barbie dolls as an iconoclastic gag. His latest film keeps the thread alive in a memorable way. The Mona Lisa burning is a horrifying moment for art lovers, but it’s a prime symbol of an idea that’s become a minor thread of obsession running through Johnson’s works. The moment Miles Bron reveals his obsession with this artifact of the past in Glass Onion — the moment this secret criminal ties a precious artifact to his own symbolic legacy — the question stops being whether the painting will be destroyed, and becomes “When?”