Review of the great Sidney Lumet’s over-looked, coming-of-age gem “Running On Empty”
By Carter Bagley
The late Sidney Lumet is one of those filmmakers that despite making some truly incredible films (Twelve Angry Men, Serpico, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict) is very far from being a household name, and probably never will be which is a real shame. He’s always been a master filmmaker and his films like “Twelve Angry Men” and “Dog Day Afternoon” are some of the best films ever made in my opinion. Out of his entire filmography however, it’s his 1988 coming-of-age masterpiece “Running On Empty” that doesn’t get the attention it deserved. It stars River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, and Martha Plimpton and the whole film rests on the shoulders of the then 17 year old River Phoenix who is nothing short of phenomenal in the film that got him his only Academy Award Nomination. The film follows Phoenix as 17 year old Danny Pope who lives on the run with his fugitive family and his younger brother Harry. His parents Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch & Christine Lahti) committed a political crime in the late 60’s and have been on the run from the FBI ever since. Moving from school to school and town to town their whole lives, Danny and Harry have no real sense of normal and have only had their family for support their whole lives. Although when Danny comes to another new school for his Senior year, things start to change when he befriends his music teacher, Mr. Phillips, who shares his passion for piano. As he starts to fall in love with Mr. Phillip’s daughter Lorna and starts to see what his future might hold for him he begins to realize that he has to choose between his love and his passion or his family before he continues on with his life. River Phoenix proves himself as a phenomenal performer in this film as many of his scenes completely steal the film. That’s nothing bad on Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti however as they also deliver great performances as good people who are still dealing with the repercussions of something they did 20 years prior, albeit in very different ways. The movie flows together extremely well and it has very subtle moments that you can tell were ultimately building up to the final scene in the film that determines Danny’s future. For whatever reason this film has been forgotten over time, probably because of River Phoenix’s untimely tragic death in 1993 and he never got a chance to become the biggest star in Hollywood that he was on his way to becoming. Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s early films which have only grown in worth as he became the star he is today. I advise anyone who loves coming-of-age stories to check out this gem as soon as possible because “Running On Empty” is a forgotten masterpiece about a young man who must determine what he wants to do with the rest of his life, and either choice has dire consequences. It’s full of heartwarming and heart-wrenching moments that make you feel many emotions for this good family stuck in this awful situation. Phoenix was definitely a star in the making and it’s hard to believe that he was just a teenager in films like “Stand By Me”, “The Mosquito Coast”, and “Running On Empty” because he delivers authentic human performances that most adult actors couldn’t even pull off. He had a natural screen presence and acting ability that we may never see again. Whatever people want to say about his family and his life decisions, he was a real talent and we’ve missed out on some extraordinary performances as a result of his untimely death at the age of 23. Nonetheless, this is an unforgettable film with excellent direction, well-paced writing, and human performances that anyone can relate to.