Sweet Jesus, that was quick. One day, I’m talking about how we’re in a dry spell and barely anything is coming out at the multiplexes. And then, all at once, we’re hit with a massive deluge of content stretching out as far as the eye can see. These next few months are looking like 2021 all over again!

So I went and played another round of “cinema grab bag” at my local multiplex and came up with See How They Run, a British star-studded whodunit from director Tom George, here making his feature debut after a respectable TV career with the BBC. More perplexing, this is might be the first Searchlight Picture I’ve seen since 2020 that got a big-screen release without getting dumped directly onto Hulu. How in the nine hells did THIS picture get a full theatrical release, but Prey didn’t?!

Then again, it occurs to me that the studio released a star-studded mystery thriller at a time when everyone’s hyped for the imminent release of Glass Onion, the Knives Out sequel. So maybe Disney wasn’t doing the filmmakers any favors after all. Anyway, what have we got here?

The film opens in 1953, with the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” in London’s West End. For those who don’t know, “The Mousetrap” is still running in London’s West End to this very day. Discounting a 15-month hiatus for COVID lockdown, it is the longest continuous run in the history of theatre. But I digress.

Our premise begins with Leo Kopernick, played by Adrien Brody. He was stationed in London back in WWII, and fled back to London to seek new work after Hollywood blacklisted him as a suspected communist. More recently, Leo was conscripted to direct a major film adaptation of “The Mousetrap”, even though he doesn’t particularly care for murder mysteries and he’s never actually seen the play all the way through. In short order, we also meet:

  • Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), the puffed-up screenwriter whose creative conflicts with Leo frequently come to blows.
  • Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson), owner of the theater and producer of “The Mousetrap”, who stands to lose audience attendance if and when the film adaptation is made. Thus…
  • John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) is stuck producing a film adaptation he can’t legally release until “The Mousetrap” is closed for at least six months.
  • Richard Attenborough himself (played by Harris Dickinson), lead actor of “The Mousetrap”. He’s also married to actress Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), and recently came to blows with Leo after the latter made a drunken pass at Sheila.

The bottom line is that Leo is such an arrogant drunken womanizing blowhard that when he turns up dead after the 100th show, there’s a long list of suspects with motive. I might add that the murder happens in a backstage prop room, which turns out to be an inspired setting for a fight scene.

Enter Sam Rockwell in the role of Inspector Stoppard, the detective tasked with solving the murder and keeping “The Mousetrap” on the stage. I might add that his superiors are highly motivated to solve the case because of Agatha Christie’s fame and political connections. On the other hand, this case is happening opposite an unrelated serial killer case (very likely the John Christie murders).

So Leo’s death is important enough that Stoppard’s got everyone breathing down his neck to solve it, but not important enough to divert resources and manpower from the serial murders. Sucks to be him.

Enter Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), the only police officer available to assist in solving Leo’s murder. She’s a bright green guileless rookie who talks too much, earnest and overenthusiastic to a fault, endlessly chipper and desperate to prove herself by any means necessary. Compare that to Stoppard, a jaded and hard-boiled veteran detective who keeps his own counsel. Stalker is squeaky clean while Stoppard’s a drunk. Stalker is a young single mother whose husband died in the war, and Stoppard’s a veteran with a war injury and a cheating ex-wife.

The interplay between them is fantastic. No joke, watching Rockwell and Ronan play off each other is a major selling point for the film. For that matter, the whole cast is loaded with talented actors and they’re all having the time of their lives playing their roles with comedic aplomb.

While the story is of course fictional, it bears mentioning that the film uses a great many real-life figures. John Woolf was indeed a respectable film producer — he was best known at the time for making The African Queen, though he’d go on to win an Academy Award for Oliver! fifteen years later. The film even brings in his wife at the time (Edana Romney, played by Sian Clifford), and introduces his eventual third wife (Ann Saville, played by Pippa Bennett-Warner) as his assistant/mistress. Obviously, Richard Attenborough and his wife need no introduction. And near the end, the film brings in Agatha Christie herself, played by Shirley Henderson.

All of this amounts to… honestly, I’m not sure. If the object was to make a love letter to 1950s cinema or theatre or culture, the film is way too unfocused for that. If the filmmakers wanted to pay homage to Agatha Christie, that was pretty well established when they set out to make a fucking murder mystery. We do get a few winks to the camera and lampshading jokes, but the self-aware comedy isn’t consistent or prominent enough to make a coherent theme, or anything more than a sweet stylistic flair.

Granted, the self-aware edge leans into the theme of blurring lines between reality and fiction. Even better, the film makes extensive use of the real-life case that directly inspired “The Mousetrap”, raising questions about the ethics of appropriating real-life stories and tragedies for mass entertainment. The question is only briefly raised and never answered or explored, but at least it’s there.

Oh, and if anyone is actually familiar with “The Mousetrap” (and I am), the filmmakers take that knowledge to lead the audience into a fun little side chase. Masterfully done.

Granted, themes weren’t really quite so much of a prominent issue for murder mysteries back in the day. Back in 1934, it was enough for “Murder on the Orient Express” to come up with an ingenious solution that nobody ever could’ve seen coming. But now everyone and their mother knows whodunit on that train, thus more recent adaptations have to augment themes of the American legal system and the distinction between justice and revenge.

Likewise, a huge part of what made Knives Out such a fantastic picture was the subtle emphasis on themes of racism and socioeconomic disparity that greatly augmented the central mystery. And let’s not forget The Nice Guys, a fabulous noir thriller with compelling statements about corporate greed and the power of film. Much as I love the ongoing trend of cinematic potboilers, it’s not enough to come up with a clever solution anymore — we need some intelligent and timely social commentary that can keep the audience thinking long after the short-term satisfaction of learning who the killer is.

Then again, “The Mousetrap” has been running unaltered on London’s West End for seven goddamn decades, so what do I know?

That being said, this is absolutely an intelligent picture. I love the strategic and stylish use of split-screens. I love the various red herrings and false trails, particularly in how they’re used in teaching Stalker to be a more insightful and less impulsive cop. I appreciate how the ultimate solution really is genuinely clever. More than all of this, the film has a sense of comedic timing so unerringly precise that no idiot could’ve made it.

Ultimately, See How They Run is a murder mystery. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s funny, it’s intelligent, it’s stylish, and it’s superbly acted, but it’s still ultimately a pulpy and disposable film. The film does what it set out to do, but there’s no compelling reason to see the film again or think about it after it’s over — there’s certainly nothing to change the game or inspire a sequel, much less another wave of imitators.

I have a hard time recommending this for the big screen, but it’s absolutely worth a watch on home video. This really should’ve gone directly to Hulu, and I strongly recommend checking it out just as soon as it does.

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