In honour of Sidney Lumet I decided to review a really fabulous piece of cinema – Running on Empty (1988). The film won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, and is my personal Lumet favourite. River Phoenix gained an Academy Award nomination for his part in the film. He unfortunately did five years later outside the Viper Room in Los Angeles.
A teenage boy, Danny Pope (River Phoenix), has been forced to live on the run since his parents, Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur (Judd Hirsch), blew up a napalm lab during a Vietnam War protest, blinding and mutilating a bystander. The family are fugitives; hunted by the FBI, and forced to change their names and appearance every six months. Danny, 17, tires of the life, and escapes into music, finding release through the piano. The family are faced with a dilemma when Danny falls for his music teachers daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton – who you may know from eighties classic, The Goonies). Another problem arises when Danny’s skill finds him auditioning to attend the prestigious Juilliard School, a famous American school for music.
Classic music aficionados will appreciate the reference to several influential composers, but it’s not the music that gets you hooked – it’s the way the music tells Danny’s story. His passion for music at once compels him forward, but also pulls him away from him parents and family. It is at once his solace from the life he’s forced to live, and also his constant problem – how can he embrace a life in the limelight of music whilst running from the law? Phoenix portrays the anguish well – whether from Lumet’s direction or his own personal skill is hard to decide.
Lumet’s direction is flawless. Every scene is perfectly shaped; every frame helps tell the story. Even the dialogue is flawless, used sparingly at times for tension, used nonchalantly at others to display the growing relationship between Danny and Lorna. The best part of Running on Empty’s dialogue is what’s not said in its key scenes. The look of joy on Danny’s face in his first piano scene, the awkward pause when Annie reunites with her father, even the perfectly performed slump of Arthur into his van after receiving an update on his parents, these scenes are all so perfectly planned that they cannot be faulted.
Sidney Lumet died after a battle with cancer on April 9, aged 86. He filmed both hits and misses, encompassing a diverse range of genres – Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express and The Wiz to name a few. He was nominated several times for Academy Awards and BAFTA’s. On April 9 we lost a legend of the film industry. If nothing else, try and see Running on Empty. It may not be fast moving, or action packed, but it’s a fabulous piece of work. If nothing else, see it out of respect for another cinematic legend lost. Four and a half stars.