See How They Run review: a charming but slight whodunit
The opening narration of See How They Run, which comes courtesy of Adrien Brody’s ill-fated Leo Köpernick, doesn’t just tell you what kind of movie it is. Brody’s sardonic voice-over also makes it clear that See How They Run knows exactly what kind of a story it’s telling, and so do its characters. As Köpernick is killed by an unknown assailant in See How They Run’s prologue, Brody’s voice even dryly remarks: “I should have seen this coming. It’s always the most unlikable character that gets killed first.”
In a less charming film, See How They Run’s streak of self-aware comedy would wear thin quickly. However, the new film from director Tom George is able to, for the most part, strike the right balance between tongue-in-cheek humor, mystery, and genuine sweetness. The film is a lean, not-particularly-mean whodunit, one that lacks the acidic strain of humor present in some of cinema’s other great murder mysteries, including 2019’s Knives Out, but which still boasts the kind of playful spirit that is at the heart of so many of its notable genre predecessors.
See How They Run also features what all whodunits must: an ensemble of memorably cartoonish, over-the-top characters. In specific, the film places its attention on the disorganized crew of actors, writers, and producers that are at the center of a production of The Mousetrap, the hit Agatha Christie play. At the start of See How They Run, a group of Hollywood creatives are in the midst of trying to adapt The Mousetrap and that’s, well, where the fun begins.
See How They Run knows that no whodunit is complete without a memorable detective. Consequently, the film provides not just one, but two lead investigators in Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), an alcoholic but intelligent police detective, and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), a rookie cop who is desperate to learn every lesson she can from her seasoned superior. The two characters are brought together in the film’s first act by the murder of Brody’s Leo Köpernick, an exiled Hollywood director who had been hired to helm an adaptation of The Mousetrap.
See How They Run then follows its lead pair as they question a wide range of suspects, nearly all of whom are introduced in the film’s opening minutes. The list of possible culprits includes: Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson), the original producer behind The Mousetrap; Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), the lead actor in the stage production; Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), Attenborough’s wife and an accomplished actress in her own right; John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), a philandering movie producer who wishes to capitalize on The Mousetrap’s success; and Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), the snobby writer who was hired to pen Woolf’s in-development adaptation.
While these characters are all bound together by See How They Run‘s central Christie play, the film does struggle to give each of its performers their due. Wilson, for instance, makes a striking impression as Petula, an unyielding producer who wishes to keep The Mousetrap running in London for as long as possible, but Mark Chappell’s script doesn’t give her much to do throughout See How They Run. The same can be said for Dickinson and Chanda, both of whom turn in reliably charming performances despite their characters feeling like little more than background players for much of the film’s runtime.
Of the film’s cast of suspects, it’s Oyelowo who makes the biggest lasting mark with his outsized performance as the insecure, easily offended writer who frequently clashed with Brody’s egomaniacal Köpernick. For his part, Brody gets to continue his recent career resurgence by turning in another likably sleazy performance as the victim at the center of See How They Run’s story. He does that despite the fact that the film is ultimately less concerned with its victim and suspects than it is with its charming detective duo.
To See How They Run’s credit, it’s not hard to see why it’s more interested in focusing on the unlikely partnership that forms between Ronan’s Stalker and Rockwell’s Stoppard than any of the haughty characters they’re investigating. Rockwell and Ronan have each spent the past few years proving time and time again that they’re two of our most charming working actors, and See How They Run doesn’t pass up the chance to take advantage of that fact. Rockwell turns in a surprisingly sleepy but confident performance as Stoppard, a man who is haunted less by his wartime experiences than he is by his failed marriage.
The actor moves through See How They Run like a man on autopilot, which not only makes it easy to feel empathy for Stoppard, but also allows his moments of insight to be that much more impactful. Ronan, meanwhile, shines as Stalker, a chatty and impulsive young detective whose eagerness to get to the bottom of Köpernick’s murder leads her down a number of unfortunate detours. Like Oyelowo, Ronan isn’t afraid to go big in See How They Run. She brings an over-the-top exuberance to her performance as Stalker that feels, at times, like it was designed for a movie directed by Wes Anderson, whose obvious influence on See How They Run feels inescapable.
Fortunately, unlike so many of the Anderson imitators that have been released over the years, See How They Run manages to succeed on its own merits while still feeling deeply indebted to the Grand Budapest Hotel and French Dispatch director. Mark Chappell’s script also keeps the film moving at a pleasingly brisk pace, one that heightens the film’s lighthearted tone and sense of humor without ever pausing long enough to let it get lost in its own cleverness. The film does make a few critical missteps in its final act by both rushing toward a resolution that is less satisfying than it rightly should be and by too heavily foreshadowing the biggest beats of its climax.
These mistakes aren’t damaging enough to sink See How They Run though. The film’s infectiously joyous spirit helps make up for its shortcomings, which come together to form an admittedly minor but still enjoyable homage to the murder mystery genre itself. As its opening narration informs you, See How They Run knows what steps its viewers expect it to follow, and it manages to hit nearly all of its necessary beats with enough panache and style to pack a tangible, if not necessarily bruising punch.
See How They Run hits theaters on Friday, September 16.