If "Running Scared" were set in Hell (the actual place, rather than a figure of speech), perhaps it would have been easier to swallow. That it instead takes place in New Jersey doesn't quite cut it, no matter what the Garden State's biggest detractors might think. A crime thriller more violent and unrelenting and gruesome than the average R-rated slasher flick, the film wallows for almost two full hours in a cesspool of dirty dealings, sleazy actions, and an ensemble of characters just this side of being Satan's spawn personified. Writer-director Wayne Kramer (2003's "The Cooler
") has clearly set out to make a motion picture that will elicit extreme wide-range audience reactions, and for that he has succeeded. Indeed, it would almost be impossible to walk out of "Running Scared" without strong feelings either way, even if, when all the chips are laid out, the experience is more audacious than actually satisfying.
The convoluted plot begins with the introduction of Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker), a low-level patsy for the mob who must do away with the gun that ends up killing two undercover police officers. Returning home to wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) and 10-year-old son Nicky (Alex Neuberger), Joey stashes the firearm in the basementan action that is secretly seen by Nicky and physically abused neighbor boy Oleg (Cameron Bright). When Oleg ends up stealing the gun and finally using it on his despicable, drug-addled step-father (John Noble), Joey immediately gets into hot water with his mob bosses. If he isn't able to find the on-the-run Oleg and the weapon he is carrying, Joey could very well find himself looking down the barrel of a different loaded gunor worse.
"Running Scared" follows the paths of two charactersJoey and Olegfor most of its duration, with Joey desperately in search of the gun Oleg used in the shooting, and Oleg trying to find some kind of solace from the nightmarish home life he has escaped from. Literally lurking around every corner, however, is a monstrous human worse than the next, with Oleg first in the clutches of what appears to be a dangerous vagrant, then facing off against an abusive baddie beating up on a good-hearted prostitute (Clara Perez), and finally being kidnapped by a married pair of child molesting serial killers (a chilling Elizabeth Mitchell and Bruce Altman). Yes, you read that right, and as far out of left field (and unlikely) as the pedophile/captive child subplot is, these scenes are easily the movie's most nerve-jangling and effective. In fact, this horrific segment could stand alone as a remarkable short film, and features one of the most original and skin-crawling recent cinematic moments: as the psychotic couple approach the bathroom that Oleg has locked himself in, their shadows from behind the wall transform into demonic, otherworldly silhouettes.
There are inspired glimpses into writer-director Wayne Kramer's ambitions throughoutaesthetically, the picture frequently pulsates with atmospheric, innovative flourishes and complex shot setupsbut his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach finally strains credibility too much, and his over-the-top comic indulgences are haphazardly out of place amidst the grim subject matter and countless exploitative sequences of child endangerment. A running gag involving Oleg's step-father's obsession with John Wayne is all wrong, and the amount of lowlifes and degenerates that keep getting in the way of Joey and Oleg threatens to become laughable. If this portrait of the New Jersey underbelly is accurate, which it more than likely is not, then the state should be evacuated at once and its residents locked up behind prison walls. Even Joey, who the viewer must follow as if he were the protagonist, is written as an unsavory lost soul with middling redeeming qualities.
One week after the release of "Eight Below
," Paul Walker is back for a return engagement, this time in a role so far removed from the heroic one he had in that Disney production that it doesn't seem like the same person. Walker's performance is probably the sturdiest he has given since 2001's "Joy Ride
," finally free of the surfer-boy speech and pretty-boy looks that often plague his acting. As the ever put-upon Oleg, 12-year-old Cameron Bright (2004's "Birth
") is fabulous, holding his own (and actually stealing scenes from his more experienced adult co-stars) even in the face of nonstop onscreen threats, violence and profanity. Bright, along with Josh Hutcherson (2005's "Little Manhattan
"), is shaping up to become the gifted male equivalent of Dakota Fanning. Finally, Vera Farmiga (2004's "The Manchurian Candidate
") is strong-willed and sympathetic as Joey's wife, Teresa, possibly out of default; her character is the only one that could be called virtuous.
As "Running Scared" races toward its hockey rink-set climax and about two more climaxes after that, the film jumps the rails, turning into a foolish mockery of itself. The threats of brutal violence on Oleg's behalfforeshadowed by an opening scene where his shirt is bloodied and he appears to be hurtare distasteful and irresponsible, especially since it is evident that writer-director Wayne Kramer has little on his mind except some cheap, gory thrills. As for the real ending, involving a twist right on the heels of another twist, it is an undeserving, tacked-on cheat that is maddening rather than gratifying.
"Running Scared," a random and bizarre freak show that just so happens to not quite fall within the conventional realms of the horror genre, features fleeting moments of daring brilliance enmeshed with more numerous sequences so misguided and plainly awful only a talented director could have been responsible for failing at them. It's not a good film, and yet there's something to be said for any feature that derives a response from the viewer other than just terminal indifference.