When the box of tissues reaches Diane — the first face we see in the present — she doesn’t want one. In fact, it doesn’t seem like she needs one. The story she tells the group, and herself, is one of strength, resilience, and above all, normalcy, as her daughter prepares for college. But there’s a tinge of resentment in her voice as well.
In a manner somewhat atypical of genre films, this eerie atmosphere is done away with almost immediately when we’re introduced to Chloe, and to the world, Diane spoke of in her meeting. Chloe’s day is a montage of pills, inhalers, and exercises — which her mother takes charge of — but also of diligent homeschooling and personal science projects, which she solders together in her free time. Within just minutes, we’re granted access to Chloe’s daily life, as the sprightly teen moves her wheelchair effortlessly from room to room, stopping only at her dining room table for homework, or when she needs to use the stairlift to go from floor to floor. The contrast between Hollywood’s usual hiring of able-bodied actors for such roles, and wheelchair-user Kiera Allen, is clear and immediate: Chloe’s character doesn’t begin and end at her disability and is instead dramatized through intellectual curiosities and wry jabs at her mom.
The film’s sudden switch to Chloe’s point-of-view, and to a veneer of domestic normalcy, functions as a narrative Trojan horse. The details that seem normal to Chloe don’t warrant any additional commentary from her or investigation from the camera. Her homeschooling is routine. Her barely-disguised sarcasm when asking her mom to finally buy her an iPhone feels like adolescence 101. Her enthusiasm whenever the mailman (Pat Healy) comes around is uncontainable, as she anticipates an acceptance letter from Washington University, whose logos litter the bulletin board in her bedroom (Diane is always the first to get the mail, though she assures Chloe that any university communication will be handed over promptly).
It’s a distinct moment in the life of any teenager on the verge of leaving the nest, exciting and full of promise. Although, when Chloe accidentally discovers a small detail that seems oddly out of place she begins carefully pulling at this thread, only to realize just how many constraints her mother has really placed on her to prevent her from asking questions. For years, she’s had no reason to doubt the reasons she’s being homeschooled, or why she doesn’t have a smartphone, or why her mother supervises her internet use and all her incoming mail. Before long, the details that once seemed routine begin to feel like shackles.
The camera creeps inward or sideways along dollies each time Chloe searches for answers and enters a new state of doubt or recognition. The empty spaces in her house begin to feel like dark, sinister corners from which some slasher villain might suddenly emerge. Although, there isn’t a jump scare to be spoken of in order to break the tension; the film rarely, if ever, relieves its grip.
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It isn’t hard to figure out what’s happening from a big-picture standpoint — after all, the film casts immediate doubt on Diane even before we’ve met Chloe — but to call Run merely a Munchausen-by-proxy film does a clear disservice to thrilling work done by everyone involved. It’s as much a psychological drama as it is a taut escape thriller, in which each scene begins to feel like a heist. For instance, when Chloe’s internet mysteriously goes down just as she’s Googling one of her medications, she has to figure out a way to get the information she needs using nothing but a landline, while also avoiding her mother’s watchful eye. It’s another one of the many ways the film feels like an intentional swing in the opposite direction from Searching; Chloe’s access to technology is limited, and rather than a story where a parent and child start out at odds and find their way back to one another, it’s… well, that would be spoiling its many twists and turns, each of which is rooted in character, and are delights to discover.
Sarah Paulson is tremendous in a role that requires balancing grounded drama with B-movie pulp, as she walks a fine line between warmth and monstrousness. Once we begin seeing her through Chloe’s eyes, it’s impossible to nail down a singular feeling or perspective; do we love Diane? Do we fear her? Do we empathize with all that she’s sacrificed and the fact that she may have been caught in a web of lies? The film offers no clear roadmap, which is a testament to Paulson’s prowess as a performer used to juggling different genres, often within the same story.
Of course, this vagueness surrounding Diane, for the most part, would’ve felt dramatically confusing, were it not for Kiera Allen, who grounds the film’s thrills in a performance that demands both emotional nuance and intense physical dedication. When the constraints around Chloe are tightened, her home becomes something of an obstacle course, which she navigates both through her knowledge of scientific tidbits and her sheer desperation.
There is, of course, a looming sense that the film might be on the verge of some grand, unifying statement about illness or disability — the kind of Hollywood inspiration-porn that skirts around lived realities — though this might simply be a case of expectations, based on what we’re used to seeing time and time again. However, instead of going the route of some rote prestige drama once it lays its cards on the table, Run actually leans even further into its genre thrills, offering both a final act and eventual conclusion that end up ludicrously fun. It isn’t until the credits roll that you realize just how much Torin Borrowdale’s pulsating score has helped the entire thing fly by (it evokes Bernard Herrmann as much as Chaganty evokes Hitchcock; which is to say, just enough to be fun without feeling like a poor impersonation)
There isn’t a moment in the second half where you won’t be sitting on the edge of your seat — or your couch, or bed, or what have you. The film is sure to be a success on streaming platforms, but it also feels designed distinctly for the big screen. In fact, it was set for a theatrical release until the pandemic changed those plans, and it hasn’t really been adjusted for laptops and televisions. On one hand, a few visual details might be too subtle to notice without the scale of the cinema, but on the other, what this mostly means is that the film’s ebbs and flows were designed for collective gasps.
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