Unbelievably good

Kyle Smith

It’s difficult to discuss Running Scared, the most surprising film I’ve seen in years, without touching on its twisted setpiece – an out-of-left-field sequence of such depravity and horror it elicited cat calls from everybody at my screening: “Aw, shit!” or “No fucking way!” and so forth, each involving profanity and some element of resistance and disbelief.

Normally audience chatter makes me want to gag viewers with Sour Patch Kids, but here I happily partook, looking at my equally aghast friends. The hardened film lover develops a thick skin for thrillers and horror; he or she can anticipate the soundtrack swell and the surprise cut, imagine the ensuing gore and write the characters off with nigh a hesitation. The evil of Running Scared is totally new and totally terrifying.

I don’t want to judge Running Scared based on one scene, but given that the film re-introduced those sick-to-my-stomach roller-coaster butterflies for the first time since Poltergeist II, it’s hard to ignore its power – not unlike the opening to Saving Private Ryan, or maybe the parachuting-turtles-in-toilets scene in Ernest Goes to Camp.

Movies too often are linear affairs, moving simply from one goal to another, rarely offering the depth that imbues daily life. Running Scared may seem a goal-oriented film, as its muddled plot concerns incompetent gangster Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) as he tries to retrieve a hot gun he misplaced. But the film is willing to dart off on unnecessary tangents, filling its story with such a multitude of bizarre characters, idiosyncrasies and occurrences that it feels like some kind of hyper-cinema.

It’s unfortunate that anything involving low-level gangsters is still labeled a Pulp Fiction rip-off, 12 years after the fact. I don’t think Running Scared is too intelligent or not referential enough to channel Quentin Tarantino. Writer/director Wayne Kramer is heavy on style, to occasional faults – the film would be better without the opening flashback of Walker and troublemaking 10-year-old asthmatic Oleg (Cameron Bright) driving and screaming before the obligatory “18 Hours Earlier” title card. I would not be surprised if New Line pushed for the sequence to make the film less disturbing, as it doesn’t gel with the night-in-the-life-of narrative that follows.

Everybody wet their pants when David Cronenberg showed reciprocal oral sex in A History of Violence, decrying the studio tag and showing something real. Man, fuck that. Even though I admired what Cronenberg did there, Kramer one-ups him here with a little washing-machine cunnilingus in the first few minutes – immediately after a fantastic gunfight. If Cronenberg’s sex and violence was clean, polished and self-aware, Kramer’s is dirty, passionate and necessary.

Other magnificently weird things go on: Oleg’s father is obsessed with John Wayne, enough so to have an enormous tattoo of the man on his back. When Oleg mildly shrugs off the Duke, his father beats him. There’s a scene at a black-lit hockey arena that needs to be seen to be believed. Even the closing credits are weird: a carnivalesque, animated menagerie that recounts the plot through cut-outs – sort of. Following the considerable adrenaline highs of the feature with this strange decrescendo is an apt trick in a movie full of them – and the red herrings laid here further tweak the experience of the film.

Paul Walker, by the way, is a genius. I initially wanted to see Running Scared as a show of support for the much-maligned Walker, who charmed with such pain and difficulty in last week’s Disney dogfest Eight Below (hard to imagine a more versatile seven-day turnaround). Kramer manages to harness Walker’s frat-boy looks into a realistic gangster with a fittingly hot wife (Vera Farmiga), and Walker gruffs, yells and intimidates his way through the film’s dominoes of low-lifes. It’s an impressive performance.

Running Scared’s biggest problem is its title. It suggests a linear simplicity – a mask the film deftly wears – but fails to distinguish the movie in any sense. As a welding of pure entertainment and truly interesting moviemaking, Running Scared has no peer. But the title is also a cliche, much like the bulk of Running Scared. Some may write off the film’s use of cliches to propel its story, and they’re right in a sense; but these cliches are less trappings of a boorish mind than they are elements of storytelling finally maximized. When a white pimp screams at the end of the film, “I’m the mack daddy!” the effect is laughable without being condescending. The film reaches an apex of ridiculousness so high that it turns back on itself; not as a cult film or as some meta-commentary, but instead as real life bolstered by 150 cc’s of steroids.

This is remarkable, powerful, can’t-miss stuff. See it before it goes to two showtimes a day.

Communication senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]