This review originally appeared in the North Texas e-News.
The whodunit genre creates a tricky tightrope for even the best movies to walk. Make the mystery too easy and you risk boring the audience. Make it too hard and the audience feels frustrated and lost. There’s a sweet spot right in between though, a balancing act that just has to find the right footing, when a whodunit creeps forward with a carefully precise expertise and slowly brings the audience along with it. When the movie seems more content with showing rather than telling, but never outright explaining until a grand reveal at the end. That’s cinematic gold, but a true rarity in all too many of the genre’s films.
Luckily, See How They Run provides that rare example of the magic that can happen when a film really pulls off this highwire act. A combination of sharp wit, smart storytelling and a real understanding of the audience’s own machinations propel See How They Run into the upper echelons of movie mysteries.
It opens with a scene straight from one of the classics. In fact, the movie, or more precisely a charismatic Adrien Brody, tells you as much. An eminently unlikeable character gets the boot from a mysterious murderer leaving the audience with a roomful of suspects that just so happen to be near enough to the crime to possibly commit it. The twist: it all takes place during a celebration for the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s play, The Mousetrap and all of the actors and creative types in attendance are suspects. Oh, and the victim is the movie’s opening narrator, Brody himself.
A murder mystery on the set of a play written by a famous mystery writer, which in of itself is famous for its twist of an ending, sounds a little on the nose even to someone who appreciates a good self-referential parody. A lesser movie would trip over the weight of that setup alone yet See How They Run revels in its uncanny sense of balance. It never falls headfirst into the ridiculous, nor does it take itself too seriously in another balancing act worth commending.
Most of the praise for that tone falls on the shoulders of writer Mark Chappell and co-star Saoirse Ronan. Chappell’s uncanny ability to seem to be sitting in the mind of the viewer during each of the film’s interrogations just waiting to flip a moment of revelation on its head is what really makes See How They Run tick.
At the same time, Ronan is a riot as Constable Stalker, the overly eager trainee forced to work with Sam Rockwell’s Inspector Stoppard on the murder case. Ronan has a keen sense for comedic timing and pulls off a hyperactive character that might be grating in the hands of a less capable actress.
For his part, Rockwell plays a decent down-on-his-luck detective as Inspector Stoppard too. He’s just enough of a charming mess up for the audience to feel some sympathy for him while still being able to laugh at his expense.
The pair together have a great on-screen chemistry that helps keep the movie together even as the web of motives and accusations becomes increasingly convoluted. The overly eager rookie and gruff trainer dynamic may be standard and predictable, but it helps keep the movie grounded when the suspects are oftentimes over-the-top comedic caricatures like David Oyelowo’s eccentric screenwriter or Harris Dickinson’s goodie-two-shoes lead actor.
Of course, all of that amounts to little more than nice window dressings if the mystery itself, and the subsequent payoff to said mystery, isn’t worthwhile. See How They Run’s intrigue relies heavily on that ability to predict what the viewer is thinking before they even have a chance to eke out an “aha!” By being just one step ahead of the audience, usually with a good joke thrown in to point out the fact, See How They Run keeps you guessing until an ultimately satisfying, if a tad abrupt, ending.
It also helps hide some of the movie’s duller points, specifically a somewhat bored direction from Tom George and an underutilization of Brody, who perfectly understands his assignment by acting as if he stepped straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel, by having him act as the film’s victim rather than a chief suspect.
Those shortcomings are thankfully minor concerns compared to the overall body of work that is See How They Run. It’s a movie that mystery lovers should be running to see while still appealing to those who appreciate a good chuckle on their night at the theater.
Spotlight Score: 8/10