There’s a fine line to walk when a writer – and by extension a film – makes light of tropes and genre clichés. When done properly, it can lead to grand satires and parodies, most notably the likes of Airplane!, Hot Fuzz, and most recently, Knives Out. However, when executed poorly or haphazardly, like in See How They Run, the end result is essentially a self-own, belaboring tired beats to the point of banality. The overall presentation is fun, and there are a couple of really good performances, but the real problem is that this movie leaves nothing to the imagination, and at times feels like it’s actively trying to stamp out the very notion of creativity.
Set in the early 1950s, this quasi-sendup of a whodunit largely takes place at London’s West End, where Agatha Christie’s play, The Mousetrap (still going today; it’s the longest-running play in the world), has just celebrated its 100th performance. Now, the idea of staging a murder mystery at a theatre literally staging a murder mystery is a very interesting concept. Or at least it would be, if Rian Johnson hadn’t already done so at the highest possible level (just substitute the mystery writer’s home for the stage), and has the follow-up in the can and coming out in just a few weeks.
As the film opens, Adrien Brody narrates as sleazy Hollywood director Leo Köpernick, who has been hired to make a cinematic adaptation of the play. After he rattles off just about every plot and character device used in these types of stories (grizzled detective, group reveal in the drawing room, the killer is who you least suspect, etc.), he himself is killed, his postmortem voiceover noting that “the least likable character gets bumped off.”
Enter Police Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) and Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), who have been tasked with solving the murder as quickly as possible. In true whodunit fashion, they uncover the various closeted skeletons of just about everyone involved in the play who might have had a motive for killing Köpernick, presumably making the entire supporting cast into suspects.
However, the problem there is that many of the characters are real people. Reece Shearsmith plays producer John Woolf (one of the people responsible for The African Queen, which is noted several times as if to remind us that there are much better films out there), who leads the charge for the play to be made into a movie. Harris Dickinson (Prince Phillip in the god-awful Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) and Pearl Chanda (I May Destroy You) play Sir Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim, who were in the original West End production of The Mousetrap. Shirley Henderson briefly appears as Agatha Christie herself. There are others, but the point is that unless we’re going for Quentin Tarantino levels of revisionist history, nearly half the suspects are invalid, removing most of the potential fun of trying to figure things out from your chair, which is the entire point of the genre.
The rest of it is squandered by the film continuously drawing attention to its own lazy clichés. It’s one thing to make note of an easy plot convention, especially if in doing so you’re subverting it. That shows a level of cleverness and critical thought from a creative standpoint, and it also proves that you respect the intelligence of your audience to recognize what’s going on, further solidifying your engagement. But it’s quite another thing to acknowledge these flaws and then actively engage in them for the sake of cheap jokes with no hint of irony. On multiple occasions someone will say how terrible something is, only for that exact thing to happen. For example, in his “suspect interview,” script writer Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) recalls an argument with Köpernick about how lazy flashbacks are when it comes to plot and character development, right as he’s flashing back to that very argument. He then quips that it would be even worse than cutting to a title card that says “Three Weeks Later.” Guess what immediately happens.
Seriously, call the building inspector, because the fourth wall is just completely obliterated. And this is before characters start addressing the audience, a second act climax that is almost a shot-for-shot hallway chase from a Scooby-Doo episode, a meaningless dream sequence where the film basically becomes The Shining for two minutes, and a scene where the characters literally show you how the movie’s going to end. There’s self-awareness, and then there’s this nonsense. And it’s all done in this maddeningly winking, quirky manner that tries to pass itself off as cheeky when it’s just being cheesy. It’s as if the film can’t decide if it wants to be a legitimate mystery, a self-parody, or a Wes Anderson movie, but it kind of sucks at all three.
This extends to something of a meta level when we have scenes where Köpernick complains that Mervyn’s script isn’t interesting enough because no one is murdered in the first 10 pages, knowing as we do in the “present” that he is in fact killed within that time frame. Similarly, there’s commentary on how wrong it is to appropriate real events and sensationalize them for the sake of entertainment while the movie is intentionally doing exactly that. It’s like the film is endorsing itself as the only “proper” way to tell these stories – as in the Hollywood formula – while showing us just how boring and uninspired that is. And I’d like to give credit for that, but this film was released by Searchlight, which is under the Disney umbrella, which means every joke was seen and approved by entire boardrooms full of executives. Just like when Tim Burton tried to satirize Walt himself in the Dumbo remake, it doesn’t work because you haven’t actually gotten away with anything.
Now, all of this is not to say the movie is truly terrible. The one stereotype where director Tom George and writer Mark Chappell succeed is in the form of Stalker. Probably because Köpernick never bothers to mention a doe-eyed enthusiast character in his one-dimensional checklist, Saoirse Ronan is free to play Stalker as Jimmy Olsen in a police uniform. She takes fastidious notes, is overly eager to please, comically jumps to conclusions far too often, and even has a very dry, British running gag between herself, Rockwell, and the police commissioner (Tim Key), where they all greet one another by rank and title. It’s a bit that’s been done before (see two of the films listed above for great examples), but it was funny nonetheless. In fact, Ronan easily gives the best performance of the lot, mostly because she has almost no restraints. Oyelowo too gives a great turn as Mervyn, further demonstrating his range as the haughty writer abused by a hack. And while they’re nothing truly remarkable, Rockwell and Brody certainly have their moments.
There is some legitimate comedy along the margins, quite literally in fact, as cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay seems to take delight in framing the focal point actors as dead center as possible so that there can be a sight gag on the fringe. Daniel Pemberton turns in another fine score worthy of awards consideration. The costumes and production design fit well for the period and play to the film’s humorous strengths. The editing outside the aforementioned chase scene is largely on point. It’s as if Tom George knew the script itself was weak so he decided to ramp up the rest of the production values to compensate. And if I’m being completely honest, these touches do go a long way towards redeeming what could have been an abject failure, to the point where I can at least say I was somewhat entertained.
But all that said, this is a pale imitation of the modern whodunit, and doesn’t even work as a parody. If you’re going to do a mystery, then actually do one and give us a surprise or two. If you’re going to make fun of archetypes and overused plot points, fine, but do so in a way that services the story rather than undermining it. And under no circumstances should you just flat out reveal your own ending less than halfway through. The whole reason we watch is to try to play along and solve the puzzle, so telegraphing the conclusion can never be satisfying. It robs the audience of their ability to connect with the material and it completely defeats the purpose of the entire affair, especially when it’s done in a ham-fisted attempt to get one over on the system, which is a no-win situation even if the suits didn’t greenlight every dig. Either nobody sees the film, in which case your message reaches no one, or people do watch, and the money goes right to the very people you’re indicting. In that sense, the movie itself is the trap, and it’s baited with as much cheese as humanly possible.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you think Agatha Christie would say if she saw this? Have you ever been to the West End, and if so, what was it like? Let me know!