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‘Run’ Review: You’ll be way ahead of ‘Searching’ director’s frustratingly neat new thriller

Sarah Paulson stars in a story about domestic imprisonment that can't stand up to its clear influences.
Credit: Hulu

Lean, mean and a bit gangrene, Aneesh Chaganty’s fickle new thriller “Run” manages to be both antithesis and magnification of the writer-director’s superb 2018 debut, “Searching.” That movie encoded intoxicating techniques of narrowed perspective and real-time epiphany into the language of social media, and “Run” doesn’t see Chaganty re-examine those elements of suspense so much as ripping out the hard drive and exhaustingly dissecting it until we can observe every shiny piece in clear view. He’s aware of the unambiguity, and he expects you will be too—if not by the tongue-in-cheek verbosity of a quite literal pretext, then surely by the touch of keen self-awareness when, in a scene fueled by the prickliness of undivulged knowledge held by Chloe Sherman about her mother sitting right next to her, a film playing in the background roars with a dramatic fanfare of a score. Perhaps it’s a Hitchcock.

“Overkill” isn’t a particularly good way to describe “Run,” mainly because it’s a decidedly minimal movie whose mystery is tethered to a core simplicity. It boils down to this: Chloe has suspicions about her mother. What are those suspicions? She can’t quite say, and her dearth of medical conditions – the wheelchair, the daily mouthful of pills, the inhaler, the shots – aren’t making discovery any less easier to reach, literally or metaphorically. All she knows is what slight convenience of plot has guided her to find out one afternoon day, barely 10 minutes in: Those green-and-white pills her mother (played by Sarah Paulson, comfortably keyed into just-can’t-quite-trust-her mode) gives her night in and night out are probably not temporary boosts to her debilitated immune system.

But what actually are they? Right away, the film is teasing that “what” like an icepick rhythmically hammering away at an ostensibly idyllic single-parent family situation, despite Chloe’s obstacles. The problem is, because “Run” breathes deep gulps of an air of off-ness from the opening moments – there’s a horrific prologue that might resonate with any mother who experienced issues at childbirth – we’re already more invested in the “why.” And so, while Chloe’s improvised tactics of physical liberation and investigation bear out in a couple entertaining sequences (Chagany remains skilled at making an eminently blinking computer cursor fray our nerves), there’s a constant sense that we’re ahead of what we’re seeing. “Run” is off-balanced in toying with our emotions through the aesthetic extremes of individual scenes while also justifying them in too-simple, ultimately unsatisfying ways--which is why “overkill” is the word I keep coming back to. It stretches its fuse, and we can’t help but watch the spark advance, but the narrative drama ends up a dud.

The relative lack of obfuscation that powers this latest entry into the “Does Mommy really know best?” canon – the questions of who we can trust and who we can’t – doesn’t necessarily propel “Run,” but it does make one wonder what the bright spotlight of Chaganty’s frankness may blind us from seeing what’s coming until it wacks everything we thought we knew out of focus. Is that unseemly shape in the dark corner of the room actually more than a hat and coat hanging on a chair? It’s an intrigue that’s never fully realized, an unfortunate signal flare of Chaganty’s muddled intentions. Where the success of “Searching” is rooted in emotional poignancy, “Run” (with a screenplay written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian) goes in the opposite direction, reveling in the outrageous and never bothering to craft a believable connection between mother and daughter.

That isn’t a knock on the actors; it’s nice of TV Land to lend Paulson to the movies from where the reliable actress has been a force as of late, and the fact that we can never tell how far Diane Sherman is willing to go in “Run” makes it a better movie. Paulson gives some dimension to a character we’ve seen plenty of times before. Meanwhile, Kiera Allen – resembling Kaitlyn Dever in some scenes and Maya Hawke in others – is the movie’s revelation. She’s astounding in her feature debut, imbuing a physically demanding part with a grit and believable sense of practicality that deserves more than what the screenplay ultimately gives her. In a 90-minute movie that flies by like it’s 50, Chaganty (at first) keeps the particulars of backstory to a minimum; their dynamic is akin to nurse/patient rather than mother/daughter, and Chloe’s eagerness to get college acceptance letters in the mail is more about setting up later revelations than forming her into a person with goals.

Which is both disappointing, and also seemingly Chaganty’s point (again, muddled intentions). The filmmaker’s sophomore feature is a conventional and routine jaunt compared to his first, dialing down the sheer processing power of “Searching’s” premise for one that’s happily rifling through the suspense movie playbook before arriving at meditations on corrupted motherhood and identity that are as unrefined as the Shermans’ past. It’s a minor accomplishment that “Run” doesn’t stumble into parody territory with its third-act twists, though what Chloe comes to discover is also too neat to carve out dread in our stomachs (kudos to the pulse-quickening talents of composer Torin Borrowdale, however; there are very few movies this year that have benefited more from their respective score than “Run” does from its own). But the ending is also maddening because where the story ends up isn’t nearly as impactful on its own terms as the realization that Chaganty and Ohanian have crafted a cunning excuse as to why they don’t carefully shape the central relationship in the first place. 

Dial into the film’s admirable brashness early on, and you might find yourself airing out some gasps, and a surefire “WTF” in one pharmacy-set scene. But for a movie that possesses intense foresight about the clear genre-informed connections that will form in the heads of those watching it, “Run” should also be more aware of its fallacies.

"Run" is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, some violence/terror and language. It's available to stream on Hulu starting Friday. 

Starring: Sarah Paulson, Kiera Allen

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty