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?
“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.
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