See How They Run is impostor syndrome personified — and gleefully proud of it. The movie opens with a meta monologue, poking fun at all the tropes of whodunit movies as it establishes a twisty mystery plot for the audience to pick apart with eager eyes. The lack of pretension (and wide-eyed affection for the works it cribs from) is the film’s greatest charm, but also its greatest curse. The balance between being clever and painfully on the nose is more delicate than one would imagine, and the film is painful at its most pointed.
The key players are putting on a production in London’s West End, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. The play, celebrating its 100th performance, has been a smashing success for everyone involved — that is, until the man assigned to translate it to film is found murdered after a drunken tirade. Enter Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), the mismatched pair assigned to the case. They comprise a classic buddy cop duo — the taciturn, drunken Stoppard is the unlikely boss-turned-mentor to Stalker’s overly eager guileless rookie. Things unfold roughly as expected, and exactly as the screenwriters tell us they will. The grizzled detective chases leads, running into a couple of problems along the way, before figuring out who put the “who” in whodunit. It’s a story as enjoyable as it is routine.
This textbook script is a double-edged sword. The film is buoyed almost entirely by the charisma of its cast and its presentation, a gamble for a genre that thrives in no small part due to the appeal of a complex story. It’s a good thing, then, that Rockwell and Ronan are as successful a comic duo as one could ask for, with Ronan’s performance as Stalker especially becoming the functional backbone of the story. It’s her arc that is given the most attention after all, and her passion for her work and desire to prove herself are a perfect match for the film's light, witty touch. She sells the quiet, tender drama as effectively as the recurring gag where she mawkishly apologizes for letting puns slip into her speech on the clock. Ronan makes Stalker her own, and anytime she’s on screen, the film feels especially alive.
Rockwell’s character, by comparison, is almost totally undercooked. It’s not just that Stoppard lacks motivation (although he is underwritten). Rather, it’s how little personality Rockwell gives to what is essentially a blank slate of genre tropes, such that the film’s weaknesses become apparent. When Rockwell and Ronan share the screen, they generally shine, their characters (and personalities) play off each other perfectly thanks to a well-written dynamic. Alone, it’s another story. Vague attempts are made to flesh out a backstory for Stoppard, including an especially jarring dream sequence, but when Rockwell has so little to work with (and gives the audience even less to connect to), it all falls flat. This isn’t just disappointing for a movie that lives and dies based on its charms; it’s also disheartening that one of the most popular character actors currently working turns in one of the dullest performances of his career. This is even more painfully felt in a genre that frequently lets actors dig into some of their wildest and most entertaining impulses.
Many viewers will likely have two thoughts constantly on their mind while watching: that See How They Run looks a lot like a Wes Anderson movie and that it feels a lot like Knives Out (2019). The hyper-formal aesthetic screams the former, as does the European period setting and the presence of some of Anderson’s usual performers (including Adrien Brody, in a fittingly smarmy role). Similarly, the film shares many token similarities with what made Knives Out such a major success. Both movies employ light tone for a fun mystery heavily indebted to the films and literature that define the whodunit subgenre, with this movie going so far as to literally utilize Agatha Christie as a character in the story.
Yet by any point of comparison, See How They Run simply isn’t as good as the works it’s indebted to. Its sense of style isn’t as refined as Anderson’s, even if it still has a strong sense of framing and delicious production design. There are too many sloppy edits, strange camera setups, fumbled deployments of split screen, and almost-amateur lighting choices for the filmmaking to break out from the shadow of its inspirations — or to even be truly remarkable in a vacuum. Similarly, the film lacks the depth of genuine cleverness that made Rian Johnson’s work on Knives Out so memorable. Similar genre upheavals are deployed, with “subtle” political commentary and overt meta jabs, but See How They Run is too blunt and simplistic to impress in the effortless way that Johnson’s feature did.
Were the film not so eager about inviting comparison from the outset, perhaps these criticisms wouldn’t feel so harsh. We’re experiencing a bumper crop of cinematic murder mysteries right now, after all, with many small-scale and sturdy ensemble movies scratching an itch that lingers in the wake of Knives Out’s success. In a way, this makes See How They Run less egregious, existing as part of the pack rather than a lone wolf in drawing from these wellsprings of influence. In addition (and in fairness to the filmmakers here), the script is more interested in drawing attention to the influence of Christie and the broader subgenre of the whodunnit mystery, rather than in any specific film or filmmaker. However, when the work establishes itself primarily as a pastiche from the outset, it's hard not to think of what other movies might’ve been on the minds of the filmmakers — and why those movies linger while See How They Run will quickly fade from memory.
This is all perhaps a harsh way to say that See How They Run is generally unremarkable. It does have one saving grace, however — it’s so spectacularly entertaining. When the film is firing on all cylinders, it delivers all one could hope for from a cozy muder mystery, all charm and complications delivered at a breezy clip. The film is frequently operating in this ideal mode, and it feels like more than the sum of its parts when it calls the least amount of attention to the origin of those parts. It’s just plain fun, and it’s easy to imagine what a sequel would look like halfway through the film thanks to the appeal of its leading duo’s interactions.
It might be a cop-out to say that movies don’t always have to be exceptional to be worthwhile. After all, experiencing See How They Run involves feeling as if one is watching more and more potential being wasted in front of one’s eyes. Yet even with this apprehension, there’s still a temptation to put one’s qualms aside to watch it again on a rainy day or a cold morning, cuddling up with something slight but comforting.
Perhaps the most clever trick the filmmakers pull is laying their cards on the table from the outset. Drawing attention to so many of these tropes draws attention to why the tropes are appealing. When a film is executed with general competence and an excess of charm, it’s hard not to give into the fun of it all. Although all the little flaws hold it back from being genuinely remarkable filmmaking, it’s more than satisfying as “mere” entertainment.
See How They Run is now playing in theaters.