See How They Run: ‘Scream 3-ifying’ The Mousetrap

With Knives Out having proven such an unexpected and refreshing hit a couple of years ago, it seems everyone in Hollywood is getting in on the meta-murder mystery. Of course there’s the forthcoming Knives Out sequel Glass Onion, Kenneth Branagh’s doing whatever it is he thinks he is with his Poirot movies, David O. Russell’s next star-studded extravaganza Amsterdam, and this self-reflexive comic whodunnit, which presents a prolonged riff on The Mousetrap, familiarity with which is most definitely advised, though not absolutely essential. See How They Run is a much less innovative or involving entry in the canon than Johnson’s semi-masterpiece turned out to be, being a much more traditional, frothier and broader work, lacking the finesse and energy Johnson and his cast brought to bear. Yet it should still satisfy fans of the genre and provide a few harmless chuckles.

The film begins with post-mortem narration by its victim Leo Kopernick (Adrian Brody), self-described as the film’s ‘least likable character’, a Hollywood director hired to adapt the West End play to screen. We see how he gets on the wrong side of each of his colleagues, and then someone lays him out backstage in a sequence faintly reminiscent of Scream 3‘s costume department tussle. In typical style, we’re then introduced to our odd-couple investigators, Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan)—their names suggestive of a larger than life tone the film doesn’t quite manage to sustain. Stoppard is a laconic, gin-soaked old soul, Stalker an eager beaver with a brain bursting with movie facts and desire to please, and the two make a charming duo with their respective performances easily the strongest part of the film. All-American Rockwell’s miscasting as a plodding, perpetually hungover Scotland Yard inspector strangely works, it’s appropriate that he not quite ‘fit the bill’ as it were and he underplays it magnificently, and Ronan is at her most endearing here.

Their suspects are a slightly disappointing lot, truth be told. They’re a passably starry lineup but their characters are granted neither much depth nor the kind of big personality that would justify the quality of actors playing them. Ruth Wilson‘s theatrical impresario, Reece Shearsmith‘s movie producer, David Oyelowo‘s preening playwright, Tim Key’s oafishly disapproving Commissioner, even Harris Dickerson and Pearl Chanda as real-life couple Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim aren’t given much zest or scenery to chew on. With characters this dry, anyone whose star power brought you into your seats is inevitably going to leave you disappointed. At least Ronan and Rockwell get to show off their carrying ability, and Adrian Brody gets to put on his best Wes Anderson bit-part performance.

The Scream 3 comparison I made earlier goes beyond that one set piece. Scream was always as much a murder-mystery as a slasher; it’s one of the franchise’s strongest unique selling points, and See How They Run holds a mirror up to Scream 3‘s plot about a film production being haunted by a killer picking off the cast and crew. It’s got a lower body count and they’re hardly the only two movies to use such a premise, but the effect and humor is much the same, with lots of metatextual references and even, eventually, a full-on fourth wall break (much in the manner of the play). In this case, See How They Run has the advantage of being able to reference a single, real source, and fans of the play might well delight in seeing its props repurposed and scenes recreated. Although, it does so in such a broad, clumsy way that even I, as someone who has no familiarity with the play at all, knew precisely when it was being referenced, even intercutting an onstage murder with the real one backstage via split-screen.

This split-screen effect is used consistently throughout See How They Run, an opportunity for the film to flex its advantage over the stage—the play is treated quite harshly throughout (again, I wouldn’t know if it was justified, the disadvantage of referencing a play that’s rarely been filmed, and never in English). This split screen was a tool I enjoyed and would’ve liked to have seen used more audaciously, with it doing little to alleviate the safe, well-ordered, front-room feel of proceedings.  Director Tom George makes his feature film debut here and although he acquits himself well, it’s an ambitious project for a director without a Wikipedia page, he doesn’t have the skill it takes to make a film feel stage-like but not stage-bound. Few can thread that needle. There are some moments of whimsy and poignancy, but rarely exhilaration—even in the film’s climax at a location I shan’t disclose—and a lot of the best moments are fleeting detours that do feel out of place. The film’s a little lost between sincerity and farce, and it comes by some terrific little moments by leaning into either, but few by charting the middle course.

The script isn’t dynamite either, with a few too many moments that strike the viewer as odd. We’re told that there’s a lot of pressure on Stoppard to crack this case as both the newspapers and the Home Secretary have taken interest in it, but he’s given no help except Stalker (who as the Met’s token female officer is regarded as the equivalent of a kid on work experience) because everyone else is wrapped up in the Rillington Place murders. Presumably the writers wanted to include this plot-point as a reference to the film 10 Rillington Place, in which Richard Attenborough went on to star. However, See How They Run is explicitly set in Winter 1952-53, at which time the murders were believed solved. It’s kind of the main thing about them: that the police thought they’d got their man when they hadn’t. Given that it’s one of the most infamous cases of police misconduct in British history, it’s surprising that the writers chose to include it but failed to use it as a means to portray Stoppard’s colleagues as incompetent and complacent, as they are in fact characterized, albeit through different means. Either way, it makes no sense for Stoppard and Stalker to be left to their own devices, and this is a plot hole entirely of the film’s own devising.

Perhaps a more substantial issue is the mystery itself. Whodunnits generally need to have clever, convoluted solutions, but self-aware whodunnits? Their mysteries need to be so clever and so convoluted that it leaves your jaw on the flaw and your eyes in a spin. See How They Run has an only moderately clever twist that is extremely guessable. Frankly, I think any of the multiple red herrings it throws at you would’ve made for a more satisfying solution.

It’s hard not to enjoy a good whodunnit, as trope-heavy and insular a genre as it is, they’re compulsively viewable for a reason and malleable to a variety of different styles, settings, tones and subgenres. I might hope for a more inspired reinvention, despite it almost certainly arising in response to Knives Out‘s success (it first went into production almost exactly a year after Knives Out’s release) See How They Run feels like a decidedly pre-Rian-aissance take on the subgenre and isn’t the breath of fresh air one might’ve hoped for. But still, I’m holding out vain hopes that the murder mystery is poised to supplant the superhero movie as the dominant force in popular culture. Lord knows something has to!

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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