The works of revered murder mystery author Agatha Christie gave birth to an entire genre of entertainment, and one of her most celebrated creations takes center stage — quite literally — in See How They Run. The film opens with a celebration, commemorating the 100th performance of Christie’s acclaimed stage production The Mousetrap, but the festivities are sullied when film director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), recently tapped to adapt the play into a feature film, turns up dead. Not that he’ll necessarily be missed by anyone involved in the production, mind you; the hard-drinking, ill-tempered Hollywood helmer is notorious for his sleazy schmoozing, and as “the most unlikable character” is practically begging to be bumped off.
Nevertheless, a dead body is still a dead body, and Scotland Yard dispatches Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) to suss out the details of the murder, with a bit of assistance from bright-eyed, enthusiastic Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), a chatty and energetic bundle of nerves working her first real case, much to the chagrin of her sleepy-eyed partner. The list of suspects encompasses pretty much everyone with whom Köpernick came in contact, including a stuffy writer (David Oyelowo) whose faithful screenplay clashed with the director’s more violent vision; a high-powered producer (Reece Shearsmith) with a secret he wouldn’t want revealed; a theatre impresario (Ruth Wilson) whose contract might compromise the film; and the star of the show, Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), who recently came to blows with Köpernick after the latter made advances toward his wife and costar, Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda).
Much of the film’s success hangs on the audience’s familiarity with the genre, as Mark Chappell’s screenplay attempts to freshen up tried-and-true tropes with a bit of meta humor; when Oyelow’s character rails against flashbacks as “crass, lazy and insulting to the audience,” don’t be surprised when that same narrative device is leveraged almost immediately afterward. See How They Run yearns to balance the scales somewhere between Christie’s classics and more modern fare (comparisons to Rian Johnson’s Knives Out are to be expected), but despite some stylistic flourishes from director Tom George (making his feature debut), the finished product struggles to achieve a fully formed identity of its own. Thankfully, the comedic chemistry between Rockwell and Ronan lightens the load: the veteran detective’s world weariness is well complemented by the zealous energy of his rookie partner, and some of the film’s biggest laughs come courtesy of this delightfully unconventional duo.
See How They Run feels more like cinematic comfort food than an exercise in innovation, and there’s nothing wrong with that: it’s fun and breezy, wearing its influences on its sleeve and even pulling the celebrated author herself into the mystery. It bends the rules of the whodunnit without being so bold as to break them completely, yet should still have a surprise or two waiting in the wings, even for those well-versed in the genre.