My Thoughts: Running on Empty (1988)
When you saw Stand By Me (1985) for the first time, who was the character you really connected with? If you asked most people who’d seen the movie, the answer would be Gordy (Wil Wheaton) or Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), the two smartest kids in Rob Reiner’s masterpiece. Disregarding Wheaton for the moment, good as he was, you could easily see that River Phoenix was the remarkably talented actor in the movie, even at the ripe age of 12. He was quiet and acted self-assured. He was also insecure and scared–a terrified teen from a terrible background–but pushed on in scene after scene with false confidence until he finally cracked. Life must’ve been exhausting for Chris Chambers. We know for sure that it was for the actor River Phoenix, who died of a heroin overdose at age 23.
Running On Empty, a very good movie helmed by a very good director (Sidney Lumet), showcases River Phoenix’s talents so well that, watching it and also knowing how his life fizzled, leaves crying as the only possible outcome.
The film achieves greatness in many scenes, and is certainly worth viewing, but somehow the pieces never fit together to make something truly fantastic. Somehow it’s Phoenix’s performance that contributes to the feeling that we’ve watched an incomplete film. He’s so fantastic that no one in the film, even the adults (minus Christine Lahti), can compete with his chilling screen presence.
Lumet’s film is about a family of outlaws, headed by Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) as two aging fugitives. Once young radicals who called their parents things like “fascist swine,” they were involved in blowing up a napalm laboratory during the 1970s while the war in Vietnam approached a depressing end. In the protagonists’ attempts at social justice, they unknowingly blinded an innocent bystander, a janitor mopping floors.
Since then, they’ve been on the run, moving from one city to another, changing identities and last names the way most people change pairs of pants. Early on, bunking in a hotel room after they’ve just flown the coop on one more backwoods town, the sons watch the coldly objective way their parents are portrayed by national media. Danny Pope (River Phoenix), who’s been through more of these impromptu moves than his brother, is unconcerned. He pulls out an 88-key paper mimic of a piano keyboard and silently practices his passion. Harry (Jonas Abry), on the other hand, asks his brothers a raft of questions. Phoenix answers his brother’s inquiries quietly, keeping his mind mostly on the music he can hear only in his head.
In this hotel room, in yet another town, Arthur shaves his beard and Annie dyes her hair another variation on blonde. Danny gets rid of his huge glasses. The license plate on the van they’re driving changes a couple of times after this, and eventually, the Popes are living somewhere in New Jersey, working common jobs, getting paid in cash, renting a ramshackle house and staying just one click ahead of the FBI.
Running on Empty moves gradually (but not slowly), allowing us necessary time with most of the main characters. We see scenes that are doubly hysterical and heartbreaking. Consider one scene where Arthur, who’s just found out his mother’s died, comes home and takes his anguish out on the family. He cruelly quizzes Danny on his own, his mother’s and his brother’s “new names.” At one point we laugh at the absurdity of it all, but then we feel the tragedy, not for Arthur and Annie Pope, but for Danny, a gifted musician, to have to endure this charade year after year. It’s even sadder that Arthur hadn’t seen his mother in almost 20 years and finds out about her death through an old friend whose job is to provide him with fake birth certificates.
Then there is the most sad and brilliant scene in the movie, one in which Annie approaches her father, and they have a frank and tearful discussion. As the father talks about the dreams he had for his own daughter, Annie Pope speaks of those she has for her own son, and asks him for one last favor until she disappears into obscurity again. They talk simply but deeply about what it is to do the right thing–and Annie knows that she must let her son pursue his dreams, even though she’ll likely never see him again. Christine Lahti has never been better than in this sequence.
And the romance that blossoms between Danny and his music teacher’s daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton, in a very good performance) is fully realized. They fall in love, but even as they’re increasingly honest with one another, there’s a deeper truth Danny struggles to hide.
That said, there are problems with Running on Empty. One scene in the family’s kitchen where the whole family engages in a supposedly “poignant” song-and-dance routine of James Taylor’s vapid single “Fire and Rain” is nauseating. It’s extremely trite and only distracts from the more interesting human relationships at hand.
And I also found Judd Hirsch irritating more often than not. His character, in a film with a completely original premise, was sometimes far too conservative. For a man who once blew up a laboratory, he’s strangely backward and ignorant, shouting blandly about “keeping the family together” when his son expresses an interest in making his own way as a musician.
Even if we understand that Arthur has become less “radical” in the past decade and cares deeply about his family, we don’t grasp why he’d be so bull-headed when conversing with his kids. While Arthur and Annie seem to connect on a supremely loving and intellectual level in several well-written moments, Running on Empty rings false when Arthur cannot speak to Danny matter-of-factly about the future. The scenes between Phoenix and Hirsch are the worst written and most overacted in the entire picture. When Arthur changes his mind about his son’s future, there is no credible lead-up to his decision–and that’s a glaring mistake.
Despite the fact that a few scenes in the picture are unnecessary and poorly scripted, the Phoenix and Lahti performances are two of the best of the 1980s.
If I were a director in 1988, there would’ve literally no other actor I would’ve trusted to play Danny Pope. We can see in River Phoenix’s subtle actions (facial and bodily movements, even) the conflict he faces every day, wondering whether he should move forward with his family or leave them behind to begin his own life, to realize his own talents. He steps cautiously in most scenes and approaches every conversation quietly.
And Lahti, who is a supremely underrated actress, plays her character tough at first, but gradually, we see her sympathetic side shine through. If Hirsch is too overbearing in some scenes, Lahti is brilliantly restrained when necessary, showing cold detachment in early scenes and changing into a more honest, emotional person later on.
Because Lumet has drawn such fine performances from his cast, we forgive the movie some weaknesses. The last scene, which could induce guffaws in a lesser picture, hits the perfect emotional note because we’ve come to truly care about many of the film’s characters.
And at the center of the movie, River Phoenix gives the best, most nuanced performance of his career. Above all, Running on Empty affirms that we lost a great star far too early.