Film, Film Review

REVIEW: See How They Run (2022) dir. Tom George

Opens Friday, 9/15 @ Coolidge

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Speed round: how do you have fun at a murder mystery movie? Do you scope out the killer when the camera fits the full ensemble cast in the frame, implying the presence of the perpetrator(s)? Do you seek for clues the entire time? If you were able to guess the killer, would you consider the mystery to be badly designed? Most importantly, do you have fun at a murder mystery movie?

In order, my answers would usually be “I don’t, nope, can’t remember anything, nope, not really.” The rules for watching this kind of genre film seem to demand a different sort of active watching than with others (maybe horror movies are a close second in the audience-directed “I saw that twist coming!” shame). I find that trying to figure out the murderer the entire time is like calling out a magician’s every slight move during his act. Unsurprisingly, I also don’t like magic shows, but for the sake of the performer, we need to purify audience-baffling again. Let me feel dumb all the way until the end without feeling the need to have one over the writer.

I realize that the fun whodunits of today aren’t about the who, or even sometimes the why. It’s the journey and the party attenders of the howdunits that makes an emetophobe cherish Knives Out or true crime nuts appreciate Only Murders in the Building (though my initial skepticism of this show leaned towards 2:1 main cast ratio of the comedy geezer Martins and a millennial Selena Gomez that skewed my perception of the show’s target audience). In some way, murder mysteries are sort of one and the same (sorry!), which means that a good one relies so much more than the plot to stand out from the rest.

To those who are like me, it can be a bit disheartening to hear Kenneth Branagh contemplating an Agatha Christie multi-verse, especially after 20th Century dragged Death on the Nile‘s release like the lifeless corpse it deserved to be. It might sound confusing when I say that Tom George’s newest film, See How They Run, challenges the genre by introducing the meta-verse of Christie tales. The setting: London’s West End in the 1950s, where Christie’s The Mousetrap (a play infamous for guarding its twist ending) is playing to rave reviews. The murder: big-time Hollywood director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), who visits the theater to consider a screen adaptation of the play. The lucky detectives: disentranced veteran Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and a keen Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

See How They Run scrambles a fictional mystery with historical Easter eggs. Film producers had considered adapting The Mousetrap, but Christie was fierce in preserving spoilers and felt that it was impossible to keep the reveal a secret had it become a movie. A young Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda) make their early rounds as stars of this West End production, and African Queen producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) is part of the stardom mix. The title of the movie derives from “Three Blind Mice,” which plays a big part in The Mousetrap. I couldn’t tell you if this is correct, but Inspector Stoppard might have been named after famed playwright Tom Stoppard, who wrote a parody of The Mousetrap in 1968. While Köpernick is not explicitly a real person, his Hollywood approach to the play and the simple British way of the arts upsets a variety of players. Subsequently, it does not make it easy for the detectives to find the disgruntled murderer.

This movie runs on a fine line between acute self-awareness of its place amongst murder mysteries and sedative detective pieces. There is such a huge risk of being too on-the-nose that it might not feel like we’re watching an actual movie, but a skit running on writers’ fumes. Frankly, enjoyment can depend on your half-empty/half-full perspective, if today is the right time period for Wes Anderson spawns, and whether Paddington 2 was your favorite movie of 2017 (sorta kidding on the last part, but here I am now wishing Brody played the arts-villain like Hugh Grant). I dance on either side of that line. There is an inherent wholesomeness between Stoppard and Stalker, even if the cranky/spry dynamic in police work is hackneyed. Stalker, who is a self-admitted film fanatic, will naively call out every possible scenario (even the one where everyone is responsible for the murder), only for Stoppard to sigh heavily and pick up his magnifying glass once again to continue the hunt.

It gives me mild pleasure to say that this movie is absolutely fine, which should be ticked off as a win in its field. In the big bangers of 2022 — and that doesn’t include the highly anticipated Glass Onion coming this fall — See How They Run safely coasts off sensible humor and likable characters to make a sizable splash. But as we should let magicians and murder mysteries breath, let middle-of-the-road movies exist in fun and in peace.

See How They Run
2022
dir. Tom George
98 min.

Opens Friday, 9/15 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and most major multiplexes

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