Whodunits are a classic subgenre of mystery. From Agatha Christie’s work to modern takes like “Knives Out,” these stories take the conventional idea of a detective story a step further by immersing the audience in the mystery, giving them clues so they can, theoretically, figure out the puzzle for themselves. Parodies of the genre are almost as old, like the black comedy mystery “Clue.” “See How They Run” attempts to unite the authentic and the satirical, but fails to understand what makes mysteries interesting in the first place: the mystery itself.
Set in 1950s London, “See How They Run” tells the story of novice Police Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”) and jaded Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell, “Jojo Rabbit”) who are investigating the death of condescending asshole filmmaker Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, “The French Dispatch”). Köpernick was murdered at a party for the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” — a real play that has run for over 70 years on London’s West End. Despite attempts from filmmakers, the play has famously never been made into a movie. Its contract rights stipulate it could only be adapted to film once six months had passed since its stage run ended. Because of its historic run, however, this has yet to occur. We are instead given a whodunit about the classic whodunit.
Ronan does the heavy lifting in the character department of this film. I found it impossible to care about any character but Stalker, as she was the only person in the movie with depth or a likable personality. Ronan by far has the best comedic timing of the cast. I laughed at almost every joke — which were few and in between — that came from her. Stalker is the only character who feels like she has motivations for her actions, naively writing down every piece of information she hears in an attempt to solve the mystery as quickly as possible. She is the saving grace of this film, giving the audience a thin thread of emotional connection to the plot and characters.
Besides Ronan, the rest of the star-studded cast all play eccentric characters, but none of whom the audience is given reasons to like or care about. Rockwell’s Inspector Stoppard is meant to be a man broken by years of work, a war injury and an unfaithful wife, but he comes across as an uncaring detective to which the writers forgot to add depth. I’m especially disappointed with Rockwell’s acting; he won an Oscar just five years ago for his performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” but here he seems content mumbling all of his lines without emotion. The time-hardened detective is an enduring trope with which Rockwell does nothing.
The rest of the cast is full of classic mystery stereotypes, including the privileged leading-man Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson, “The King’s Man”), the impassioned screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo, “Selma”) and the greedy theater owner Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson, “Dark River”). These characters should create an ensemble cast full of potential suspects to share the audience’s suspicion. Instead, we are given caricatures of decades-old stereotypes. Oyelowo’s character explicitly lays out in front of us why each character is a suspect — a fruitless attempt to parody the mystery genre that instead makes it feel pointless to contemplate whether any of them is the killer. When we are eventually told who the murderer is, it results in frustration instead of satisfaction at solving the puzzle. The murderer is given little screen time and substantial hints towards their motivations, yet it is also painfully obvious they are guilty. This all culminates in a whodunit without any mystery, one in which the audience’s sole source of entertainment is the humor, which itself is nearly non-existent.
The cinematography was entertaining at points. The film is at its best when attempting to make an artistic choice, from the over-the-top set design to a visually interesting split-screen editing style; however, it seems uncomfortable with these decisions. It refuses to commit to the choices it makes, not holding on to visual jokes long enough and using corny editing styles too infrequently to feel purposeful.
I wanted this movie to be good. Whodunits are one of my favorite types of films. What I was given instead was a disappointing mess that failed to leave me feeling as if I discovered anything new about the genre. The movie clearly has an appreciation for the movies it is parodying but lacks an understanding of why they are so great — an engaging mystery with a cast of characters the audience is invested in.
Daily Arts Writer Zach Loveall can be reached at email@example.com.