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HIFF 2022: See How They Run
★★★ | A hootdunnit.
We really should thank Rian Johnson for all of this. After all, without his superlative whodunit revival, Knives Out, I doubt there would be half as many murder mysteries out today. Sure, Kenneth Brannagh has done his part, but his classy-to-a-fault Hercule Poirot adaptations attract a wholly different kind of audience. Not a young audience, mind you. This is a genre for those who invariably begin sentences with “back in the day.”
In between these takes lies something of a gulf. This is precisely where See How They Run tries to wedge itself. It’s not quite a classic chamber piece, nor a meta-commentary on the genre, but rather a half-measure. One that’s equally happy to make fun of something it loves in a way where you’re not quite sure if it’s endearing or abusive.
In short, it’s as British as they come.
The murder takes place in the wings of The Mousetrap, one of Agatha Christie’s beloved plays that still runs in London’s West End. It’s the quintessential chamber play, which pretty much dictates the alphabet for this genre. The cast is a mixture of real-life actors and fictional counterparts, including a slimy American director, played with relish by Adrien Brody, who also narrates the film.
Sam Rockwell plays the weary detective, while Saoirse Ronan handles the plucky sidekick role. Together, they’re an unexpectedly charming duo. As unexpected and welcome as Daniel Craig and Ana De Armas in Knives Out or Kenneth Brannagh and his mustache in either of the Murder on… films.
Everyone involved, from the very hammy David Oyelowo to an underused Ruth Wilson is lovely. They’re pros, after all. But also a little stiff. Like everyone is just a little afraid to stand out. As if the ghost of Christie herself would strike them down for laughing a bit too much. A polite titter, that’s what you get, thank you very much.
But if anything, it’s outlandishness that a film of this caliber needs. And I think See How They Run knows it. After all, what else could explain a late-in-the-game turn into absurd slapstick other than that?
It’s that timidity that makes the whole thing a tad difficult to enjoy. You’re never quite sure if everyone is laughing with or at each other. There’s a gag about how Christie’s play is essentially the lowest common denominator sideshow; specifically made to titillate the unwashed masses while the producers wait for godough to roll in. But that turns into a celebration of how utterly wonderful this genre, this play, and Christie herself all are.
There’s also a running joke about Richard Attenborough that’s either a loving tribute or someone taking out their grievances over a dead man. It’s very British.
And it’s all a bit smug, too. That special kind of smugness you usually reserve for Hollywood productions about Hollywood.
Sure, it winks at itself and the audience every now and then, like, don’t worry, we know, but that’s like a comedian saying “this next bit is really funny.” Even if it’s true, it doesn’t make the performer any less of a jerk.
Having said that, there is a certain charm to knowing exactly what you’re going to get. See How They Run doesn’t offer surprises to anyone versed in theater or Christie, but that’s a particularly nice audience, isn’t it? Then again, it’s already a niche audience who will look at the premise and go “yes, that’s what tickles my fancy.”
But even with all the complaints, See How They Run is breezy, fun, and mostly very charming. It’s a little too long, a little too self-satisfied with how well it works, and it doesn’t know which punchline is enough. So it piles everything on in hopes that enough land and you’ll those that don’t.
How well the film works depends entirely on if you’re counting the duds or not.