Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Writers: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Cast: Kiera Allen, Sarah Paulson
Cinematography: Hillary Fyfe Spera
Editor: Will Merrick
Streaming on: Netflix
At one point in Run, a 17-year-old girl secretly leaves her room at night. She doesn’t have a cell phone. So she has to use the family computer to log onto the internet. She makes her way to the living room and switches on the family desktop. The Windows OS comes to life. She then opens Google to know more about a particular medicine. She types the name of the pill. The results will hold the key. Every move of hers is careful and studied so as not to awaken her mother, a paranoid single parent. The moment she hits the Enter button, the WiFi signal disappears. The page flashes that sad, pixellated dinosaur. Which is to say: a simple internet search becomes a massive task – a tense set-piece in an analogue thriller – even though Run seems to be based in 2020. There are valid reasons for this low-tech existence, which I’ll get to later. But this sequence is likely a veiled ode to director Aneesh Chaganty’s breakout debut feature, Searching: a terrific “digital thriller” whose premise, of a desperate father looking for his missing teen daughter, unfurls entirely on computer and smartphone screens. Needless to mention, these were high-end Apple machines.
Run exists at the opposite end of the connectivity spectrum. In more ways than one, it’s a perverse spiritual sibling of Searching. For starters, the perspectives and settings are reversed – the plot revolves around a chronically sick and home-schooled teenager (Kiera Allen, as Chloe) who must circumvent the lack of technology in the customised house to uncover a dark secret about her mother (Sarah Paulson, as Diane). Chloe is geographically limited, paralysed from the waist down, and gets around in a wheelchair. Mother and daughter are inseparable to begin with, unlike Searching’s father-daughter pair who’re almost estranged until the incident. It’s almost as though the makers want the audience to understand how a crisis looked before the internet age – this tonal deceit, of a 90s lifestyle in present-day America, is nicely woven into the film through Chloe’s sheltered upbringing and fragile health condition.
Secondly, Run is not so much a whodunnit as a howdunnit: Chloe’s suspicions are confirmed very early in the film, and the twist is that there is no twist. The implication is that human psychology alone can be more frightening than any manufactured revelations. And lastly, the film doubles up as an allegory and indictment of modern parenting – the control disguised as caregiving, the lack of identity, the incessant smothering, the manipulation, and the blurred line between selflessness and selfishness. Searching, too, occupied the same social space, except it was designed as more of a white-knuckled fairy tale than a cautionary tale.
The filmmaking of Run – sinister, atmospheric, tense, colour-coded – has a lot of M. Night Shyamalan about it, even if the writing resists his narrative gimmickry. With no sleight-of-hand tricks to fall back on, the suspense is old-school and physical: A race against time, an escape out of a window, an errant phone call, a hospital stakeout, a broom closet. The camera decides what to show and hide, and the background score ratchets up the heart rate every time Chloe works hard to locate something in the house. A healthier protagonist would’ve made things considerably more straightforward and boring.
The viewer is led to believe from the very beginning that something is not right about the mother. But the structuring is a bit too obvious. The information withheld by the makers casts a constant shadow over the story. The opening shot of Diane worriedly watching her incubated baby in 2002 abruptly ends in a way that suggests the rest of the shot will be revealed in the climax. Another shot of Diane stepping into her mysterious basement every night with a tub of popcorn is cut the second her expression starts to change, suggesting that there is much more to this setup than a caregiving parent and a spirited daughter.
A problem with the film is its insistence to keep the characters mysterious. I’m not advocating flashbacks, but it genuinely seems like Chloe and her mother are alive only to serve the purpose of this story. There is no sense of Before or After about them; it’s one thing to conceal the past, it’s another to edit the history of people. For instance, why is Diane the way she is? Why is it so easy for Chloe to defy years of care and suspect foul play? I suppose the intention is to isolate the two hard enough to justify the unlikely premise. But it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that these characters behave precisely how an onlooker might think they should. Their bond is actually far more ambiguous; it can’t be so easy for Chloe to look at Diane differently overnight. The consequence is that the viewer isn’t left with anything but the detached tension of a survival drama – there’s no emotional jetlag, no deeper sense of attachment to a movie about dysfunctional people.
Sarah Paulson’s performance has shades of several characters she’s played before. It’s always a challenge to play a role within a role, and perhaps that’s where Paulson’s experience pulls through. But her Diane feels a bit derivative, like a garden-variety creepy-mom stereotype who knows that her caring face can be perceived as both kind and crazy. Kiera Allen’s turn is impressively feral, in that it never seems like she’s an able-bodied actor pretending to be handicapped. Much of the film’s anxiety relies solely on Chloe’s crippled physical state; she does a fine job of humanising a dry screenplay device. It’s a wholly separate acting language – the ability to speak with the body, and the power to turn an action into a visual extension of a thought. She is the one who gives Run its legs, even though both protagonist and film are saddled with a weak heart.