The murder mystery genre is one of the most consistently beloved types of entertainment. TV series, be it a long-standing procedural or limited series, movies of all different types of budgets, and of course, the mystery novel – people just can’t get enough of a good ol’ whodunit. We’ve been inundated with murder mystery movies of varying degrees of quality. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out took the world by storm, so much so that a sequel is arriving later this year. Such a packed genre can make certain entries feel tiresome and repetitive – every plot point that’s meant to be surprised feeling like something we’ve seen many times before. Tom George’s murder mystery-comedy, See How They Run, is an ode to the traditional murder mystery – posh English accents, an array of dislikable characters, and a detective in a felt hat and woolen coat. And, of course, the Queen of mystery herself – Agatha Christie. Yes, the film has all the touchstones of a classic mystery, feeling like both a love letter to a Christie-esque tale and trying to actually be one itself.
The story takes place in 1953’s London. A stage production of Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, which stars Richard Attenborough and his wife, Sheila Sim, is celebrating its 100th show. The cast is joined at the party by the trio of men who have been commissioned to adapt the play into a motion picture: John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), the famed producer behind The African Queen, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo, in gloriously flamboyant fashion), the pompous playwright brought on to adapt the script, and Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), the arrogant American drunk who is meant to be directing the movie. Right when it’s established that Köpernick is disliked by almost every other character, he’s violently murdered in one of the theater’s dressing rooms. Enter our detective duo: The tired, also drunken seasoned Inspector Stoddard (Sam Rockwell) and the earnest but somewhat dimwitted rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).
Stoddard and Stalker set upon a journey of violent threats, script rewrites, illegitimate children, and for some reason, a lot of mentions of a dentist to finally find the truth. It seems everyone had a bone to pick with Köpernick, only making the web of potential suspects become wider and wider. As stated before, we are drowning in a sea of endless mystery stories. At this rate, it takes a pretty remarkable script to keep things fresh and actually surprise an audience with a whodunit. Especially difficult is when you are calling back to earlier traditions of the genre whilst still playing to a modern audience’s expectations.
See How They Run, unfortunately, does not live up to this standard. It’s charming, it can be funny at times, and it has a phenomenal cast who all seem to be having a pretty great time with it (maybe except for Rockwell, more on that later) but it lacks an exciting, shocking, or even decent whodunit. I’m not sure if it’s trying to make a meta-commentary on the state of the mystery genre and one of its adjacent contemporaries, true crime, and I can’t go into further detail without spoiling, but it just…falls flat. The actual whodunit lacks any bite or “I should have known!” You’re really just left more with a thought of “Oh…is that it?” It’s never a good sign when you expect another twist to come because the first one is so satisfactory and that’s what I found myself thinking during the grand reveal – “Please tell me there’s more to this.” Without any spoilers, it’s easy to shock the audience by paying little attention to certain characters who end up playing a larger part, but it feels like a cheap cop-out to trick the audience rather than a clever and cohesive mystery.
The script does not build on the tension throughout, instead, relying on the red herring trope to keep the audience guessing. Sure, you always need one, but a red herring should always give way to an even more exciting truth. Yes, you may not see the actual whodunit coming, and it ties to an interesting backstory, but it’s so kept hidden from the audience that offers no ultimate payoff. A satisfying, unsuspecting, and exciting mystery is no easy feat, but it’s the central drive of the narrative, making it easy to let the rest of the film crumble if it doesn’t deliver on what the entire story has been building up towards.
Perhaps the biggest letdown is how little the characters are fleshed out. We barely know any of them and yes, we need an air of mystery so as not to give the game away too quickly, but if you don’t let the audience know who they’re dealing with – they’re not going to care who is behind the murders. Ditto for our central cop pairing. To have a memorable mystery you need a remarkable detective, and both Stoddard and Stalker lack any layers or depth – they feel just as flat as the faceless characters they’re investigating.
From Ruth Wilson to Harris Dickinson, amongst the Oscar-winning and nominated headliners, it can’t be denied that See How They Run boasts an impressive cast, and this type of film sees a shift in Ronan’s usual role choices. Sure, she’s done comedy with Lady Bird, but this is the first time she’s fully leaned into a less serious role and unsurprisingly, she kills it. Even more impressive when the script gives her little to work with. The jokes she’s given can sometimes feel like they came out of a Christmas cracker – “What part of France are you from, sir?” she asks a hotel manager, “Belgium” he curtly replies. They get a chuckle but in a more harmless Dad humor way. Either way, Ronan is committed, and it’s just another reminder that there is quite literally nothing the actress can’t do.