After putting a fresh spin on the missing-teen thriller with his 2018 debut Searching, which took place entirely on computer and cell phone screens, director Aneesh Chaganty opts for a more traditional format for his second feature, Run. Although it’s presented conventionally, Run still takes a smart approach to a familiar thriller plot, delivering another gripping story from Chaganty and his returning co-writer Sev Ohanian.
Like Searching, Run focuses on a parent-child relationship, although this one is much more toxic. At first, though, it appears that Diane (Sarah Paulson) and her 17-year-old daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen) share a harmonious life together, despite the wheelchair-bound Chloe’s various chronic ailments. Diane is a doting mother who keeps track of all of Chloe’s medications, supervises her home-schooling and supports her academic interests. Even at the beginning, though, there are some cracks in the placid facade: Chloe isn’t allowed to have a cell phone, and Diane snatches up the mail each day when it arrives, promising Chloe that she will immediately pass along any college acceptance letters, although none have arrived.
Then a chance rummaging through a bag of groceries leads Chloe to discover that her mom may be lying about one of her medications. Soon all of Diane’s lies start to unravel, and Chloe realizes that her mom may not be who Chloe’s always thought she was. It’s the stuff of Lifetime movies (and indeed the somewhat similar real-life case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard was the subject of recent Lifetime movie Love You to Death, in addition to the Hulu series The Act), and Chaganty and Ohanian don’t introduce any strikingly original elements to it, even when they deploy a major plot twist in the third act.
What they accomplish, though, is to sustain tension for nearly the entire running time, beginning with the prologue that shows an anguished Diane just after giving birth to a severely underweight baby. A substantial portion of the film takes place in and immediately around the family’s isolated house outside Seattle, and Run is as thrilling as any globe-trotting action movie without needing to leave that limited space. A sequence of Chloe attempting to get from one room of the house to the other by crawling along the roof outside is one of the most nerve-wracking cinematic moments of the year.
At a certain point, Run becomes almost sadistically suspenseful, putting poor Chloe through so many punishing setbacks that it verges on laughable. But newcomer Allen always grounds Chloe’s plight in genuine emotion, and she shows how Chloe draws on reserves of strength that she’s built up through all of her disadvantages in life. By keeping Chloe in a vulnerable state, Diane has actually made her far stronger than anyone would have realized, until Chloe is put to the test.
Thanks to her extensive work with Ryan Murphy, Paulson has perfected the portrayal of the sweet yet unhinged woman, and it’s easy to see shades of some of her Murphy characters (from American Horror Story and Ratched) in Diane. She’s such an effective villain that sometimes Chaganty and Paulson lose sight of the human frailty that drove her to such terrible acts, but it’s hard to fault them for that when it allows Paulson to cut loose with the delightful nastiness. The movie’s final scene doubles down a little too forcefully on the nasty tone, but overall Run is a smart, well-crafted thriller that knows exactly how to hold its audience’s attention from beginning to end.