Running on Empty (1988)

There are films that you love unconditionally and irrationally, ones so bound up in your own personal circumstances and psyche that it is impossible to truly convey to others why this is so – it simply is. Then there are those you are convinced are fine, even great works but which, to your dismay and incredulity, you frequently find yourself having to defend vigorously, using some of your best reasoned and most persuasive arguments as even those you believed to be in perfect sync with your tastes just don’t seem to ‘get it’. To my great surprise I have found that as often as not, the 1988 thriller Running on Empty, starring River Phoenix and directed by the late Sidney Lumet, is indeed one of those films. Why?

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.

“Why do you have to carry the burden of someone else’s life?”

Given the credentials of a cast headed by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti and Lumet’s imprimatur, one might be surprised to learn that this is a crime movie by any definition though in fact the director was no stranger to genre. But then Lumet was so prolific that he did have a go at nearly every type of film, from contemporary and historical comedies and dramas to satires, musicals, sudsy love stories, stage adaptations, biopics, remakes and so on. Paul Newman said of the director, with whom he worked on The Verdict (1982), a high point in both their careers, that he was so efficient and well prepared that,

I call him Speedy Gonzales, the only man I know who’ll double-park in front of a whorehouse.

This may partly explain why this film isn’t as well-known as it might be as it hovers in between genres and may have got lost among the vast array of projects that Lumet undertook in his very long career. On the one hand it tells the story of a family on the run from the FBI but on the other it is also a teenage coming-of-age story. It is also a look back at the radicalism engendered by the Vietnam war and the impact it had on some of those who never really gave up the fight against what they believed to be an unjust system.

Hirsch and Lahti play Arthur and Annie Pope, the happily married parents of two boys, Harry (Jonas Abry) and Danny (Phoenix). They are also on the run and have been since 1971, when they sabotaged a napalm lab. A night-watchman, who was not meant to be there at the time, was caught in the blast and was crippled. The boys have never known a permanent home and have never even met their grandparents, living as part of an underground network that keeps them moving from one small town to another while still trying to make a difference in the community even though they are, by necessity, wary of getting too close to anyone they meet for fear of exposure. We begin with the family fleeing from their latest bolt hole after realising they under surveillance. They end up in New Jersey and it is here that Danny’s life starts to predominate in the narrative as his talent as a pianist (he has been taught by his mother) gets him noticed by both the school’s music teacher and his daughter Lorna, played winningly by Martha Plimpton (she and Phoenix were romantically linked off-screen at the time). Danny is ultra polite to deflect too much attention from himself, but as he grows closer to Lorna he finds it harder and harder not to tell the truth about himself and his family.

This is a carefully constructed film, shot in a discreet but highly controlled style. This is seen at something like its best in a musical sequence in which the family is seen dancing to James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain’. If compared with the equivalent sequence (featuring ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’) from The Big Chill, another film about the later life of 60s radicals, it is interesting to note how that film is very elaborately choreographed and delivered with dozens and dozens of cuts (you can watch it here). Lumet and cameraman Gerry Fisher (a frequent collaborator of John Frankenheimer) do it all in a single take and with one discreet camera move. Both sequences work very well in their own way, but the differing approaches pinpoint the fragmentation of the various characters in the earlier movie while Lumet highlights it as a moment of unity between all those participating.

The focus in the film undulates between Danny’s burgeoning romance with Lorna and the strain felt by his loving parents, especially as Arthur finds the stresses of their life of subterfuge increasingly hard to handle now that there is the real prospect of the family ‘unit’ breaking down as Danny wants to Julliard on a scholarship and remain with Lorna. But of course he is torn because if he comes out in the open, his parents and brother would have to stay underground to avoid prison and would not be able to see him perhaps for years at a time. And for Arthur his family is all he has left. The thriller aspects of the plot kick in when a Gus (actor and writer LM Kit Carson), a comrade from the old Liberation Army days, turns up with a plan to rob a bank at gunpoint. Arthur is horrified and Annie kicks Gus out (he also makes a pass at her, suggesting some unexplained past history there) but he ends up drawing attention to them anyway, leading to a dramatic and heartbreaking climax. This is of course a melancholy story, one in which simplistic happy endings are going to be out of the question. The political commitment of Arthur and Annie, while mainly discussed in terms of what they have had to give up, is never questioned, which is a bold move. It is hard to see it being done in the same way as sympathetically today, given that many would simply classify them as terrorists and close the door on them and their beliefs. But it is as a family drama that Naomi Foner’s script really excels, playing to Lumet and his cast’s strengths.

Rover Phoenix and Sidney Lumet on the set.

Lumet started as an actor and then moved on to directing live television in the 1950s before making his movie debut with the legal drama 12 Angry Men (1957). He would return to the courtroom over the decades for such films as the aforementioned The Verdict (1982) as well as the enjoyably pulpy Guilty as Sin (1993) and Find Me Guilty (2006), a true-life story closer in spirit to his more celebrated stories of police corruption such as Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1982) and Q&A (1990). He did however make more conventional mystery dramas such as the Le  Carre spy movie The Deadly Affair (1966), the star-studded Agatha Christie whodunit Murder on the Orient Express (1974), the twisty Deathtrap (1982) and The Morning After (1986), which traded on the star wattage of Jane Fonda, Jeff Bridges and Raul Julia to surprisingly anodyne effect.

Running on Empty on the other hand is much more low-key and much more interesting combination of generic elements. It is as a human drama that it is most memorable, though the plot is never forgotten, creating a suspense dynamic for most of the film as we worry about whether the Pope family will be discovered, with Danny’s missing school records acting as a MacGuffin here, reminding us constantly of the possibility of the family’s exposure and arrest. But it’s the intimacy of the scenes you’ll remember most, especially Danny’s heartfelt confession to Lorna about his real past, making for a sweet and wrenching love scene after so much obfuscation. Equally good but more restrained is the late reunion of Annie with her father (played by Steven Hill, today best known for his long stint on TV as the curmudgeonly DA in Law & Order), a scene seething with barely suppressed emotion that will just drive a fist into your stomach as Annie realises that she is about to replicate a long separation from her own son that she inflicted on her own parents. You need to be made of sterner stuff than I to finish the film without a tear in your eye, with New Jersey guitarist Tony Mottola’s plaintive, minimalist score also proving to be a real asset here; as are the lyrics to Taylor’s classic song, a refrain of which is echoed in its closing moments:

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again

A great movie – if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to see it and then tell your friends.

DVD Availability: This has only ever been made available in bare bones editions, the first a very disappointing panned and scanned release; but the more recent DVD is actually a rather impressive anamorphic version that is well worth seeking out as it ably represents the look and feel of the film, even if sadly bereft of any contextual extras. A Blu-ray would be nice, but this will do nicely until that unlikely day arrives.

Running on Empty (1988)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Producers: Griffin Dunne & Amy Robinson
Screenplay: Naomi Foner
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Art Direction: Philip Rosenberg
Music: Tony Mottola
Cast: River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, Martha Plimpton, Steve Hill

****(5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in New Jersey, Sidney Lumet, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Running on Empty (1988)

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Oh, I liked this film quite a lot too. Now I admit I’m a Judd Hirsch fan, so that helped. But yes, I agree that it’s low-key but with the right level of tension and stress. That juxtaposition of the reality of the family’s “hidden life” with the fact that Danny just wants a real life with Lorna. And of course the political ramifications add to the plot too. Nice review here for which thanks.

    • Thanks Margot – another fan – hurrah! I fell in love with this one when it came out but very few people seem to have seen it – glad there’s a few of us out there (with taste, I mean)!

  2. John says:

    Really excellent movie. Free associating on this post:
    – Every time I read a review of a River Phoenix movie I get a bit wistful. He was so talented, so unique. Such a loss to the movies and the world.
    – Christine Lahti in Housekeeping There’s a movie worth watching. I prefer her early screen acting to her later TV stuff.
    – Martha Plimpton has had one hell of a career evolution. From Goonies to this to live theater to eccentric TV shows and beyond. Always fascinating to watch. She did quite an impressive turn on “Law & Order ” years ago that I still remember. And she shows up on stage out here in Chicago every now and then as part of the Steppenwolf Theater Company.
    – Was the “family dancing to an old rock tune” scene a staple of late 80s-early 90s movies? I rem mer a lot of them. There’s one in Mermaids with Cher, Winona Ryder and a VERY young Christina Ricci bopping around to “If You Want to be Happy” that was a lot of fun.

    • With My Own Private Idaho you got the impression that Phoenix’s career could have been going somewhere well outside of the Hollywood rut (though his final few films were a litle disappointing I thought). I love Lahti’s films from that time – and I know exactly what you mean about her later TV work – she remains excellent but the roles have become much less interesting as she usually gets cast as the hard-as-nails ballbreaker. I loved Plimpton’s recurring role in The Good Wife as the eternally preganant and very devious lawyer. I love movies with diegetic song and dance sequences – at one point Hal Hartley (remember him) seemed to always have one in all his films (or seemed to). Personal favourites would have to include the strip club in Barry Levinson’s superb Diner with Tim Daly and Steve Guttenberg dancing up a storm.

      • John says:

        Yes, I do remember Hal Hartley and I went to every single one of his films when they opened back in the day. The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Flirt, Simple Men, and Amateur — all very entertaining and quirky. Now you’ve get me thinking about another loss — Adrienne Shelly. Stop it, Sergio!

        • Sorry John – that was really saud wasn’t it? Here’s some dancing to cheer us up (this is why I enjoyed The Artist‘s ending so much!)

          • John says:

            Very cool! But Martin Donovan (rear left, for those who don’t know him) can’t dance to save his life. Or was that a character choice? ; ^ ) I remember that one very well. And there’s another Hartley regular – Elina Löwensohn. Whatever happened to her? Thanks, man. You cheered me up. (And yes I will agree that the final scene in THE ARTIST was a smile inducing romp.)

          • Let’s be generous and give Donovan the benefit of the doubt …

  3. vinnieh says:

    I’ve heard good things about this but have never found the time to see it. It is going on my watchlist after reading this post.

  4. PS Of course, the great gandaddy of these dance numbers is Godard and that great number from Bande à part:

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    Another fan of this film. Also a fan of Bande a part. I do miss River. And Lahti is always great.

  6. John says:

    Nuts! Delete that comment above with that bad link to some hoax video, Sergio. Here’s the proper link to scene:

    • Great fun (way to ruin the end of the movie John 🙂 – of course, the minute I saw Winona (who frankly has better rhythm than Cher in this scene) I got to reminiscing about her performance of the ‘Jump in the Line’ song from Beetlejuice

  7. Richard says:

    I’m afraid you’ll have to put me in the “don’t get it” column. I tried to watch it when it first became available to rent but only got about half way through before I gave up.

    • Nooooh … Well, the pace is slow and studied and I suspect that will put a lot of people off. Most of the people I know haven’t even heard of it – at least you gave it a chance!

  8. John says:

    Oh, that Winona. She can sure shake it! Thanks for all the hip dancing scenes, Sergio. This will be my favorite page to revisit whenever I need to lift my spirits. Got me grinning widely and tapping my feet. Now I’lI have that calypso tune in my head for the rest of the day.

  9. Roger says:

    I think Lumet veered between conventional and oddball crime films according to circumstances- he’d use a conventional success to be able to make an experimental orradical film which usually tanked and he’d have to make another conventional film to compensate…
    The Offence has Sean Connery as a policeman who beats a suspect to death and is the only film ever made with a score by Harrison Birtwhisstle. Despite- or because of- Connery and Trevor Howard playing against type is was a box-office disaster. Strip Search suggested there was no difference between US responses to the WTC attacks and CCP ‘investigation’ techniques and nazi methods. Lumet’s last film- Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead- was another chilling masterpiece.

    • Cheers Roger – I haven;t seen Strip search I’m afraid though I would really like to see that one. Lumet made a lot of terrific films but probably made a few too many as well (I mean how many times did he need to work with Melanie Griffiths before realising that her range was a bit limited …). His 5 films with Connery are a fascinating index of his cinema – a harsh yet fascinating story of life in a military prison that is brilliantly made and endlessly cruel; a satirical and overly elliptical heist movie with aspirations to political commentary; another brutal story of institutional cruelty with one man torturing another; a piece of Agatha Chritie fluff; and a star-laden heist story of three generations of a crime family that of course ends in tragedy.

  10. Dan says:

    I own and watch a ton of films. “Running On Empty” is in my top 25 list of all time. It’s a perfect little film. The acting and the script are incredible. I’ve seen this film at least 10 times. The scene between Lahti and Hill is possibly the most effecting thing I’ve ever seen in film. I’ve never gotten through it without being reduced to a puddle. And then there’s River Phoenix’s scenes. Ah, I could go on and on. This is an amazing film.

  11. Pingback: Best Movies of 2015: Movies Released Before 2015 | Journeys in Darkness and Light

  12. mpr says:

    I must say that this is one of my favourite films of all times, and I’ve only watched it once and only recently, at that. It was so rich and so real. I just started doing some Googling to see what other fans were out there. Criminally unknown, this film.

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