As See How They Run opens Adrian Brodie’s Leo Kopernick tells us that whodunits are kind of crapy, laying out all the cliches in an opening monologue akin to a hard-boiled detective. The idea is — especially considering that Kopernick is not the film’s detective but instead its victim — to establish that this movie knows it’s an Agatha Christie-style whodunit and is also going to flip the formula around a bit to deliver something a bit different. By calling out its own premise and heavily involving Christie and her work itself the film is shouting from the rooftops that it’s the same but different.
Given the success of Knives Out and the clamor for its sequel, that all makes sense. People clearly want more of this but with a fresh take, but it’s not quite clear what See How They Run‘s fresh take actually is outside of knowingly winking at the camera. You can deconstruct a genre all you want but See How They Run forgets to build it back up.
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See How They Run
Director: Tom George
Release Date: September 16, 2022 (Theatrical)
As mentioned before, at the beginning of See How They Run Leo Kopernick is murdered. He’s the constantly inebriated director of an upcoming adaptation of Christie’s The Mousetrap, of which the stageplay is having a succesful run at the time of his death. He is, in fact, murdered in the very theater where it is being performed. Enter Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) and Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) to solve the case. The former is a enthusastic new officer put on the job as part of England’s attempts to integrate women into the police force after WWII, the latter is a grizzled detective with a dark past and a drinking problem. Line up a host of suspects played by famous people and you’ve got yourself a classic Christie whodunit.
Or you should. See How They Run seems more intent on taking apart and poking at the formula than being any sort of actual whodunit. The film jumps through all the tropes of the genre and studiously avoids them all while directly calling them out in the screenplay (It was the butler!). At one point one of the characters lays out how they’ll all be locked in the theater until the crime is solved only for our jaded detective to roll his eyes and let everyone go. This tongue-in-cheek attitude can lead to some clever bits. However, it also leads to the actual mystery solving being somewhat boring. Our detectives never really solve anything, instead tripping forward through the case until the villain reveals themselves to the world. Maybe that’s part of the meta-narrative here, another wink at the camera, but it doesn’t make for a good mystery.
The problem is that by trying to call out all these different tropes it doesn’t really leave any time for the mystery itself to be any good. Even the conclusion of the case, which tries to raise some questions about story ownership, is mostly blunted out by another meta-narrative gag ending. There’s nothing to sink your teeth into here if you’re actually looking for a mystery and the hit-you-over-the-head obviousness of its call-outs makes the film feel more like pandering that cleverness.
That isn’t to say it’s not fun, especially thanks to our two lead actors. Rockwell is pitch-perfect as a drunken detective just trying to get through his day despite being caught in the middle of a Christie novel. Even better is Ronan’s Constable Stalker, whose relentless enthusiasm and spirit is a fantastic foil to her partner’s dour disposition. The two play off each other so well that you can’t help but enjoy their scenes and wish they were involved in a whodunit with a better case.
It also doesn’t help that Constable Stalker’s storyline falls a little flat as well. As one of the only women on the force, she’s treated as an idiot who can’t do her job. The problem is that she kind of is. While this wouldn’t be an issue if her character grew into a better detective over the course of the film, the film’s plot never shows that. Instead she, much like Rockwell, trips into solving the film’s mystery, providing for a female lead that seems to confirm all the sexist things that the men on screen think of her.
It turns out that Brody’s opening monologue is correct in this case. See How They Run is pretty much the same as all the other whodunits no matter how much it tries to do more. If it weren’t for two stellar stars and their chemistry, the film would feel like a bunch of running meta gags with no point. It’s easy to be meta, it’s hard to be clever.