If I were to describe Knives Out in a word, it would be ‘crowded’. From the narrative to the cast of characters, to the mise _en scène, there’s just a lot of... everything.
In the old Thrombey mansion, where Rian Johnson sets most of his homage to Agatha Christie films, you cram each frame with all kinds of knick-knacks and bric-a-brac. Anyone who happens to get bored with whatever the characters are doing or saying has their choice of props to focus on. It could be turn-of-the-century architectural details (like hidden windows), or in-your-face hanging art pieces (like the giant, ever-present halo of knives).
There is so much junk in each room for characters to pick up, move around, or vomit in, it’s easy to wonder about the significance. This being a murder mystery, one can’t help but look for clues in each old portrait hanging in the background, objects strewn across a desk, sculptures, ornaments, and furniture.
The narrative itself, however, is simple enough. I know it’s supposed to be a head scratcher of a whodunit, but it’s not actually that hard to guess who did dun it. But I don’t think the mystery is the main attraction. If you guess the killer early on, you can relish in the bonkers, hammy performances, or the sociopolitical commentary on class, race, and privilege. None of these things are done particularly well on their own, but Johnson keeps things fast-paced and easily draws some big laughs from the audience, so it ultimately doesn’t matter.
Having so much packed into the movie reminded me of these online hidden object mystery games I spent my final year of grad school playing instead of writing my thes- never mind. The point is, these games also involve scenes crammed to the rafters with junk, and you have to pick up and play around with them to find out if each one is significant to your case, or can be used to help you in any way.
With so much going on, there is always the risk of viewers losing focus, or becoming disengaged with the characters in the foreground. The eye-catching setting you helped create demands attention as aggressively as any of the characters; however, your clutter actually helps keep the audience engaged, almost inviting us to imagine ourselves as guests at a murder mystery weekend, or players in a hidden object game, examining the surroundings of each setting, and scrutinizing each tchotchke and tea cup and wondering, along with Daniel Craig’s Kentucky Fried Poirot, “Is that a clue?”