Although I am a proud horror-movie junkie, I nonetheless have a difficult time fathoming people’s casual consumption of true-crime stories. Show me fiction like The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film and I’ll walk away bored, but give me a link to that podcast about Ted Bundy or throw on that Golden State Killer docuseries? Hard pass. I prefer my glimpses into human depravity to be entertaining, not informative. So fresh off last year’s hit true-crime miniseries The Act, Hulu is set to release another horrific tale of Munchausen syndrome by proxy on November 20th with Run, which had its world premiere last night at the virtual Nightstream Film Festival.
Director Aneesh Chaganty — alongside his writing partner Sev Ohanion — showed some genuine ingenuity back in 2018 with their debut Searching, which expanded the scope of the “screen life” subgenre from haunted Skype sessions à la Unfriended to a kidnapping thriller that was told exclusively through a character’s laptop screen. Even when that film lost steam in its third act, Chaganty managed to make the computer-screen aesthetic feel vital to the story it was telling. Their follow-up forgoes Searching’s digital approach for a new tale of domestic terror and confirms Chaganty has an equally impressive command of visual storytelling IRL. However, all that Hitchockian camerawork and tight pacing is ultimately window-dressing for a lurid, ludicrous work of Lifetime Channel exploitation.
Within Run’s opening minutes, a title card reveals that Chloe (Kiera Allen) was born with a murderer’s row of ailments that includes arrhythmia, hemochromatosis, asthma, diabetes and lower-body paralysis. As a home-schooled teen approaching adulthood, Chloe’s daily routine is meticulously managed by her mother, Diane (Sarah Paulson), whose overprotectiveness appears well-meaning at first as her daughter typically reacts to her hypervigilance — “It’s not safe for you to go get the mail by yourself!” or “12 p.m., time for your next round of pills!” — with a playful eye roll as if to say, “You and your silly ways, mom.”
Chaganty and Ohanion’s script does have a few surprises for the audience, but the fact that Chloe is a victim of Munchausen is not one of them. After discovering one of her medications (the fictional Trigoxin) is actually prescribed to her mom, Chloe begins to untangle a whole mess of horrific truths about her existence and that she’s essentially a prisoner in her own home. That she uses a wheelchair doesn’t make escape a simple prospect either.
Chloe is a tech whiz, and her room is littered with nifty, homemade inventions that smooth out mundane tasks and, eventually, aid in her investigation. Allen’s performance as Chloe goes a long way in making the child-abuse plotline far more palatable. For her acting debut, Allen has a natural charisma, and her flustered frustration during the most tense moments adds a welcome levity to the proceedings. She pulls off the harrowing physical bits with just as much skill — even if watching her character fall down stairs and repeatedly bruise herself up grows tiresome after awhile.
There’s definitely fun to be had watching Chloe play the amateur sleuth behind her mother’s back and narrowly avoiding detection. Chaganty drew plenty of Hitchcock comparisons with Searching, and now Run takes several pages from the Rear Window playbook even though it’s tonally closer to Disturbia than Hitchcock. Sadly, too much of the film’s middle section is spent on our main character uncovering a mystery to which we already know the answer — that being “Is Diane actually batshit crazy?” (Spoiler: She is!). Plenty of time is devoted to Chloe learning about the medication she’s being fed, calling up pharmacies and finagling information out of their employees. And when more sinister revelations about Diane come to light, they’re conveyed with shockingly little imagination. (Seriously, movies should no longer be allowed to contain a scene where our hero looks through old newspaper clippings to learn some terrible secret. Why would anyone, even a psychopath, keep such incriminating evidence around their house?)
Paulson at least commits to Diane’s escalating lunacy, and when the cracks in her motherly facade start to show, the actress hams it up in amusing fashion. That commitment still can’t make up for how blatantly dumb her character is. Like those aforementioned newspaper clippings, the screenplay is riddled with contrivances, with Diane making frequent, irrational decisions that give her daughter the upper-hand. When the viewer is two steps ahead of the villain, it’s hard to feel any sort of engagement.
And chalk it up to personal taste, but when a stupid, silly movie such as Run focuses so heavily around a topic like child abuse, it comes off a tad … gross. The great Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what a movie is about; it’s how it is about it.” Well, here’s a textbook example. The harrowing subject matter feels at odds with its frivolous packaging.
Run certainly has plenty of talent to flaunt and almost fools you initially into thinking it’s a smarter movie than it really is. Cinematographer Hillary Spera brings the goods, her omniscient camera slinking around every corner of the house right alongside Chloe as she snoops, as well as cleverly using shallow depth of field so we’re never certain of whether that blurry figure in the background is Diane or merely a shadow. In the end, all that filmmaking craft only emphasizes the shallowness of the whole enterprise. One hopes that next time, Chaganty can make sure it’s in service of a more worthy script.