See How They Run knows audiences have seen films like this before. Its opening narration, delivered by Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), acknowledges every whodunit trope that See How They Run will ardently follow. Leo is a Hollywood film director in London in 1953, having been hired as the director of the film adaptation of Agatha Christie‘s The Mousetrap – a play that, as the film notes, is still playing on Britain’s West End with only COVID having interrupted its theatrical run. Leo mocks the use of a country house setting where all of the suspects/potential victims are locked in only for a quirky detective to arrive, piece it all together, and then deliver the answer to the audience in a monologue. See How They Run has all of these beats, plus a few innovations. A meta send-up of whodunits, while also a whodunit itself, director Tom George approaches the subject with a dash of Wes Anderson and Knives Out, while layering in plenty of Agatha Christie along the way.
Unfortunately, See How They Run is too clever for its own good. George is no Anderson and the film is no Knives Out. It is postmodernist to its core, acknowledging its own lack of originality while offering derivative and diminishing returns on every trope it borrows from better crafted whodunits. Every suggestion Leo makes to screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) will factor into how See How They Run progresses – from using flashbacks to a spicing up of the classic reveal of the murderer scene – a trick that can be neat at first but makes the film eyerollingly predictable in the end. With a satirical edge, the film shows everybody responding negatively to Leo’s ideas, only to use them itself with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. It is hard not to agree with Mervyn or his producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) that Leo’s ideas for The Mousetrap are bad and, even with satire in mind, using them for this film does not help. In fact, the few innovations on the whodunit formula make one long for the earnestly played tropes.
Too often, the film is intent on picking apart whodunits and itself so much that it forgets to create an identity of its own, spinning around in meta-quirkiness while indulging in Wes Andersonisms – most notably a play-within-the-film, deadpan comedy, plenty of quirkiness, a scene of the action drawn out on a storyboard before it occurs, and some symmetry in the cinematography – before just embracing everything Agatha Christie. See How They Run has the potential to be a Scream or Bad Times at the El Royale type examination of genre and, at its best, it can reach those heights. However, while George and writer Mark Chappell may know everything about whodunits and approach the subject with love, the film’s self-awareness comes across as less a comment on genre than an attempt to spruce up an otherwise mediocre story with self-reflexiveness. At the very least, the mystery is a solid one and will undoubtedly leave audiences guessing, which is enough for a whodunit. Unfortunately, it comes wrapped with a tedious finger poking the audience to remember that this story has been done before and that this is a film.
See How They Run’s failings are a disappointment, as the film has its high points. Largely, they reside in the cast. Sam Rockwell stars as a quintessential whodunit detective, Inspector Stoppard. Balancing his alcoholism with his laid back yet knowledgeable approach to his job, Stoppard gives Rockwell plenty to work with as a character. He is a joy to watch at every moment, bringing a deadpan comedic edge befitting the style of the film while also benefiting from genuinely funny dialogue. The film ends up being an enjoyable watch, largely due to the comedic edge that helps brush over its other flaws by keeping the audience chuckling along the way. Rockwell is not the only one to help in this area, as Saoirse Ronan shines at every turn. She plays the wide-eyed Constable Stalker assigned to help Stoppard on the case. From jumping to conclusions to writing everything down, Ronan brings a frenetic energy and an earnestness that makes Stalker into a very likable figure. Ronan’s similarly strong comedic delivery and dramatic prowess make for a typically excellent performance. She steals the show at every turn. Adrien Brody and David Oyelowo bring flair to their respective characters, as well, standing out amidst a strong supporting cast.
Visually, See How They Run is enticing, having a cozy 1950s London feel to it that makes it hard to resist. The warm interiors bring the West End stage setting to life, while really excelling once the action arrives at Agatha Christie’s country estate. Long and tracking shots are plentiful with snow falling all around as cars travel along the road to the estate. Highlights shine in the distance while a gorgeous overhead shot of the snowy gate and establishing shot of the huge home invite the audience into this familiar, yet grandiose murder mystery setting. The streets of London shine beforehand under the work of DP Jamie D. Ramsay, while the murder scene is especially thrilling thanks to strong visual sleight-of-hand tricks, the use of shadows, and point-of-view shots to obscure what is happening. In the end, the viewer is just as in the dark as the victim was and the detectives will be, helping set the stage for the mystery very well. A dream sequence is of particular note – both for its snowy and surreal visuals and for its direct confrontation of its unlikable victim’s legacy – hinting at a fascinating afterlife, as well as the inner workings of a detective’s mind while on a case.
See How They Run is largely disposable fluff, albeit fun and enjoyable disposable fluff. It is too meta at times as it becomes gratingly self-aware and too thin on its own ideas both narratively and stylistically. Nonetheless, it is a great showcase for Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell, as well as the strong supporting cast. DP Jamie D. Ramsay also impresses, delivering attractive cinematography that befits the setting, tone, and style the film aims to create. A solid mystery rounds it out, making See How They Run into an appealing choice for whodunit fans but far too much to endure for those who do not enjoy the genre.