“Oh, I like murder.”
Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap Act I, Scene 1, Page 11
Murder mysteries are a staple of storytelling. Whether set upon a stage, in print, broadcast on your television, presented on the silver screen, or in your ears, murder mysteries tickle that part of ourselves that wants to endure the macabre from a safe distance, while challenging our intelligence. Are we smarter than the victims and would survive? Are we quicker than the most capable detective, able to divine the killer first? In recent years, there have been many ways to toy with the genre so that audiences are kept on their toes in a genre well-worn. Perhaps that’s why a film like Knives Out (2019) is so much fun; it tells you exactly who dies and how (more-or-less) soon after the investigation begins, with the rest of the film seemingly being about how the killer will get away with it. Now we have director Tom George’s (Defending the Guilty) See How They Run, an irreverent murder mystery that balances truth with fiction so that one is never sure if what we’re observing is meta-commentary on the genre, a straight-up farce, or a serious exploration of post-war 1950s London. What we know for sure is that See How They Run is just the kind of fun ensemble-stacked murder romp that’ll delight audiences from start to finish.
London, 1953, and the body of American director Mr. Body… I mean Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody)… is found on the set of The Mousetrap, a play he’d watched just recently and intended to helm a theatrical adaptation of. Beloved by none of the cast or principle crew of a stage production of famed author Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, the loss of Kopernick is not mourned, yet his murderer must be caught. Enter Scotland Yard officers Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), personally tasked by Commissioner Harrold Scott (Tim Key) to uncover the murderer so that the play may continue. The further into the investigation the pair go, the more everyone seems like a suspect, raising frustrations (and tension) with each passing moment. Quickly, the question shifts from whether they can catch the killer to can they do it before another body drops?
Rather than be called an accomplice to what takes place within See How They Run, what follows will be (as always) as spoiler-free as possible. So what can be said without ruining the experience? Quite a bit.
For one, having the film set in 1953 allows for some fantastic subtext to be explored that makes the characters of Stoppard and Stalker less authoritative cutouts and more actual people. This duo is forced together (allowing for some great comedy) and the era provides some deeper meaning. For the era, it’s irregular to see a woman officer, but being post-World War II, women had established a certain amount of credibility in male-dominated areas due to the number of men who left to serve in the Allied Forces. Her being green to investigative work isn’t just so that Rockwell’s sour Stoppard has someone around him to lighten the mood, it’s based on the notion that she’s one of the first to move up the ranks. Similarly, Stoppard isn’t a solemn individual because he takes his work seriously, it’s related to his own experience fighting in WWII. He’s a bit beaten down and broken from the fallout of war. Both Ronan and Rockwell play their parts extraordinarily well with Ronan chewing the scenery with some delightful comedic timing in a dry British way, while Rockwell magically makes his stoic performance engaging. One might expect that Ronan’s unending energy as Stalker paired with Rockwell’s dog-eared Stoppard would be the same old couple we’ve seen countless times, but the subtext of their relationship partnered with the period makes for surprising depth.
Then there’s the creativity in the cinematography and editing of the film, imbuing the film with an unexpected intentionality that serves up laughs and style. The genre is a murder mystery, the conflict centered on actors in a play, so the camerawork and editing lean into both. Rather than constantly utilizing cuts to switch from one speaking individual to another, See How They Run frequently splits the screen into portions so that our eyes are always on the person speaking as well as on the others listening. If one considers that all are suspects until either dead or proven innocent, splitting the image like this forces the audience to observe, as if in real-time, the conversations taking place. Additionally, it makes the audience feel as though they are observing the events of the film as if in a playhouse themselves where all the players are visible to all parties as long as they are on the stage. Other times, the camera is hard-placed, the only movement coming from it turning left or right to capture the action with characters moving into or out of frame (think of it like a Scooby-Doo episode when the characters are being chased into and out of doors). A greater sense of depth of frame occurs and energy is brought in to the scene in moments like these. A lot of chatter post-watch describes See How They Run as “Wes Anderson-like” and it is probably because of the application of editing and cinematographer techniques as described, but where Anderson’s films like The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) or the recent French Dispatch (2021) do this as part of a larger personal aesthetic that runs through his films, as used here, it’s far more specific. It frequently conveys the sense of watching a play. This is but one meta aspect of this film that often mimics the techniques of a play in its narrative of a murder involving a cast of a play in the very place where they are enacting a staged version of a play adapted from a story from Agatha Christie. And yet, rather than fold in on itself under the weight of all it seeks to do, it blends into a delightful fun time.
Because it would go nefariously close to spoilers, this review won’t touch how the title of the film and the meaning of the nursery rhyme from which it gains its name intersect. Suffice it to say that truth shared even through the filter of fiction possesses the chance to do great harm. So, while audiences are entertained by their murder mysteries, their true crime podcasts and serials, amid the salacious nature of these stories, audiences tend to forget that there are real people at the heart of them. While we, ourselves, are separated from the murders within See How They Run, we are a bit culpable, too, for our interest in this type of storytelling only begets more. With a pinch of humor, Mark Chappell’s (The Rack Pack) script touches on this notion with appropriate period/location humor that has reach enough to touch present audiences and maybe, for a moment, have them reconsider why these stories interest them in the first place.
One thing to keep in mind regarding my reaction to the film — I was forced to watch the film in broken pieces. Grateful as I am to have had the opportunity to screen the film at home via a screener app, the typically sturdy stream started crashing first after 20 minutes, then again 10 minutes later, and about 5-10 minutes after that. For a film that relies on pacing and timing for both revealing information as well as its humor, the continued interruptions made staying within the flow of the film increasingly difficult. However, once I switched my tech, there were no more issues and everything played smoothly through to the end. I mention all of this because (a) if I weren’t engaged with the film at all, I likely wouldn’t have tried to keep watching after the second failure and (b) I imagine that the film is even better when not unceremoniously broken up.
As we leave summer behind and enter into the fall season, a film like See How They Run is a fantastic bridge between the extravagance of blockbusters now released and the seriousness of the dramas to come. With its pitch-perfect ensemble cast led by two superb actors, See How They Run offers gratifying escape with a dash of style.
In theaters September 16th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official See How They Run website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.