Running on Empty (1988) Sidney Lumet
Warner Archive DVD
The first time we see 17-year-old Danny (River Phoenix) he’s swinging a bat at high school baseball practice. He easily strikes out, then announces to one of his teammates, “Baseball is my life.” He’s either the most cynical kid on the team or he’s trying to hide something. Maybe Danny actually is good at baseball, but he can’t let anyone know it. That would draw too much attention to himself and that would draw too much attention to his parents, Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti), and that must never happen. It’s not that Arthur and Annie are shy people; they’re wanted by the FBI for bombing a napalm lab in 1971.
When Danny spots a strange car cruising around their house, he knows it’s time for him, his parents, and his little brother Harry (Jonas Abry) to move on. “It’s wonderful having a new name every six months,” Danny complains, “not recognizing yourself in the mirror.” For years, Danny’s parents have coached him and his brother in what to do and what not to do when they start getting unwanted attention. At one point, after they’ve moved to a new town, Danny announces that he’s not going to school that day because they’re taking class pictures. “Right,” his dad says, understanding completely.
To the younger Harry, the subterfuge is all a game; to Danny, it might as well be a prison sentence. It’s hard enough being a teenager under the best of conditions and a life on the run certainly does not constitute the best of conditions. It certainly doesn’t do much for one’s social life, so when Danny becomes attracted to Lorna (Martha Plimpton), the daughter of his school music teacher, he knows he really shouldn’t pursue the relationship. Lorna is smart, smarter than most of the kids Danny’s known, and she seems to understand him, even though he hasn’t told her anything about himself and his parents. Yet Lorna knows that her own parents don’t understand how things change. “They see what they want to see,” she tells Danny. “They think that eventually I’ll turn back into a little girl in a pink dress that’s in a picture on the piano.” Danny and Lorna may be from different worlds, but they connect nevertheless.
One of the movie’s most moving scenes occurs at a birthday party for Annie. Lorna has reluctantly been allowed to attend what has always been a very private affair and you can feel the tension early, yet soon, they all begin dancing, Danny with his mom, and Lorna with Arthur. When they switch partners and Danny dances with Lorna, we quickly sense Danny’s awkwardness; he hasn’t had these experiences before and who knows if he’ll have them again if he continues this way of life? Later Danny and Lorna share a scene that haunts every young couple, but here it means something different because of Danny’s background, making it all the more poignant.
Running on Empty is about people living with the consequences of their actions and visiting the sins of the fathers (and mothers) to their children. The Popes are very, very smart people; it’s the main reason they haven’t been caught in 17 years. Yet their insistence on making their children complicit in their crime is heartbreaking and painful. Lumet comes very close at times to melodrama, and the film’s ending isn’t very believable, but the performances are extraordinary, especially that of River Phoenix. You often hear people speak well of actors who’ve left us too soon (Phoenix died on Halloween, 1993 at the age of 23), but Phoenix was extraordinary in this and other films. He’s a large part of what makes this such an effective film.
Running on Empty is now available from Warner Archive, marking the first time the film has been released on DVD in its proper original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. I highly recommend it.