While impressive to look at, this stodgy attempt at an Agatha Christie whodunnit belongs in a dusty old attic.
“You’ve seen one you seen them all,” says the dastardly movie director from beyond the grave. It’s the recently murdered Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), telling us early in the film about how stale the murder mystery genre was even by the 1950s, when See How They Run takes place. It’s also a warning to the audience that this movie will not be adding anything new, revelatory, or exciting to whodunnit cinema. Everything here has been done before, and better.
See How They Run tries hard to be a clever, meta-Agatha Christie story, but forgets to include a mystery that’s engrossing (or even mysterious). It’s set in 1953 in London’s West End, where a theatrical version of Christie’s The Mousetrap plays to rapturous audiences. It’s so popular that it’s set to be adapted into a feature film — that is, until someone murders the director and plants his dead body on the stage. This kickstarts Brody’s voiceover, along with the rest of the film, which feels as bored as he sounds.
Köpernick, who recently fled the United States for being a communist filmmaker during the McCarthy era, is the most compelling character in the ensemble, and Brody gives a typically stellar, wiry performance, so it’s unfortunate he’s immediately killed. Screenwriter Mark Chappell, tries to compensate for this by bringing him back via flashbacks, though even as the narrator Köpernick pokes fun at how lazy flashbacks are in telling a story. This ain’t your grandpa’s Agatha Christie, this one is self-referential! Now enter the two police officers in charge of solving the case, the hard drinking, low talking Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell, sleepwalking through the whole thing), and the inexperienced but desperate to write down everything that might be important Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).
Most of See How They Run is a nap-inducing slog of the two cops interviewing members of the play ensemble, who set up flashbacks involving their interactions with Köpernick, many of whom, because this is a whodunnit, have valid reasons to strangle him to death. The ensemble is top-notch, featuring several British actors trying their best with what they have, highlighted by David Oyelowo as foppish playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris. He brings the appropriate level of camp that’s needed here, and almost saves the film with his overwhelming pompous energy.
Director Tom George gives the movie a detailed, lived-in feel thanks to the rustic production design by Amanda McArthur, and the beautiful old school costumes by Odile Dicks-Mireaux that captures England’s exciting post-war era. Where he goes wrong is the camera. He seems unsure of what to do or where to place it, which might explain the random split screens used throughout that show two sides of the same conversation, but do nothing to elevate the scene or reveal anything interesting to the audience.
He also goes wrong with the actors. The film rests on the chemistry between the two cops working the case, but the actors never get a chance to bounce off each other, since Rockwell is determined to be as cantankerous as possible, blocking any attempt at a connection between him and Ronan. It’s the same “young whippersnapper saves an old sad bastard” dynamic as the widower Carl and boy scout Russell in Pixar’s Up, but with more murder and less balloons. It’s not until later when they sit together in a pub and talk about their lives when we finally see the characters (and the actors) relax and build something together.
If you direct a period piece murder mystery with Ronan and Rockwell as your leads and it’s not a good movie, you only have yourself to blame. Maybe the biggest mystery of all is how these gifted actors were tricked into an ill-conceived project like this. Were their scripts swapped with a Rian Johnson Knives Out script? Did they owe the producers a debt? Did someone slip Rockwell a sleeping pill every day on set to make him this zoned out? Something nefarious must be afoot.
See How They Run premieres in theaters September 16th.