RUN SWEETHEART RUN is a treat and another surprise. Directed by Shana Feste (Country Strong) and starring Ella Balinska (Charlie’s Angels) as Cherie, a single mother who has had a bad time with her ex-boyfriend who is also the father of her child, Pilou Asbæk (Game of Thrones’ Euron Greyjoy), as the man of Cherie’s dreams who is definitely too good to be true, Clark Gregg (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) as her seemingly kind boss, Betsy Brandt (Breaking Bad) as his heavily medicated wife, and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) as a mysterious figure who might be able to rescue Cherie.
The plot is this: Cherie is set up on a date by her boss with a handsome and powerful man and has seemingly made a dream match with a charming guy who treats her like a queen. There’s one-off note during the dinner, but Cherie is so swept off her feet, she allows herself to be convinced to go to the man’s house for a nightcap. Her date turns into a violent monster who she barely manages to escape from and Cherie is forced to flee on foot without money or a cell phone in an uncaring city, unable to find a place of refuge no matter where she goes. Finally, Cherie is forced to armor up and face one of the greatest fears of women everywhere: a man who won’t take no for an answer and considers her his prey.
While waiting for the movie to start, I got into a conversation with a couple of critics and one of them asked, “Is this a thriller or a horror film?” The other male critic said authoritatively and sight unseen, “It’s a thriller.” I replied, “For a woman, it’s a horror film.
One of the things that occur to women when they are dating is this unpleasant thought: can I trust him? Ancillary thoughts are: what do I do if he tries something that I am not okay with? What if he deliberately gets me drunk or doses me? Women like me scan the room for exits. Some women have friends at the ready to rescue them during dates, sometimes it’s from boredom and sometimes it from boorish or overbearing men who consider a date as quid pro quo for sex. If you were wondering why that sentence was my reply, this is my explanation. Quite frequently, women who are dating are low key terrified of what might happen if they pick the wrong guy.
RUN SWEETHEART RUN is a home run for me on all of these levels. It hits many of the greatest hits of how it really kind of sucks to be a woman, even after the advent of #MeToo. How women of color, particularly black women are treated as unreliable and possibly criminal people and how the police ignore their pleas for help and sometimes assume that they are sex workers simply on the basis of their ethnic background. How difficult it can be to get someone to help you when you are in danger because they are appalled by distress and don’t want to be bothered. How easily things can go to shit very quickly when you are deprived of something as simple as your purse and your cell phone. How women are considered disposable and replaceable by a large segment of our society.
The film is divided into a number of set pieces, each where Cherie tries to take refuge and the power of Ethan and his true nature is slowly revealed. She is allowed to relax a little and feel safe only to have the sanctuary ripped away from her and be forced to run again. There is an allusion to one of the first final girls of horror history when a group is shown loudly enjoying The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the flight of the character Sally to survive Leatherface’s butcher shop.
With each sanctuary, I felt a sense of loss and Ella Balinska does an excellent job showing the pain and the terror of a woman betrayed and pursued by a relentless yet jolly monster. Pilou Asbæk is every bit as good as a different kind of beast than the one he played in GoT as Euron Greyjoy. He uses his magnetism to game you and his sense of playful arrogance to create a villain who draws you in while he simultaneously appalls you. They do a dance of death until Cherie finds the strength to fight for her life. Clark Gregg is terrific as the kindly boss who really isn’t that nice and Betsy Brandt has a few disturbing moments as a wife who has given up but still tries to help Cherie. Each of the sanctuary groups are well cast and as I mentioned before earned my sympathy with their performances. Shana Feste did terrific work with her direction of the actors in the film and as a writer who knows the terror of the Bad Date personally. You can feel that this is personal to her in many ways. She is also to be commended for casting a black woman as the lead and the hero and while I guess one could make the complaint that the group that contains her ex-boyfriend might seem insensitive because they are involved in crime, specifically drug dealing, I didn’t see it that way. The casting of Ella Balinska as a secretary in a law firm, the matching of her character with Pilou Asbæk are treated merely as facts. Feste doesn’t make a big show of it or call attention to it. Those facts are treated as default characterizations instead of a LOOK AT ME, I’M SO PROGRESSIVE elbow to the ribs.
The group of her ex needed to be a group that was armed to the teeth and ready to fight, so drug dealers fit the bill. A family of cops might not have had the same value and would interfere with previous statements the film made about how cops behave. They were not treated as stereotypes, but as real people with dignity. Yes, it’s possible for drug dealers to be possessed of simple humanity. To assume that they are not when they are people of color is actually a bit dehumanizing (and racist).
The color palette and the cinematography of the film are very Los Angeles. And when I say it is Los Angeles, it takes on the character of the city at night, which is both beautiful and dangerous. Bartosz Nalazek did a very good job of making the city look as stunning and pitiless as it really is at night. The soundtrack is by Rob, the electronic composer of a number of stylish horror films, Alexandre Aja’s Horns, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac, and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. I enjoyed it. I think it went particularly well with the cinematography. Fun fact: there is a series of billboards, if you look closely, which poke fun at the treatment of women as sex objects in the background at various points of the film.
A central thematic element of the film is blood and the taboo of women’s periods, which is another horror within itself. Women are continually barraged with the idea that that simple bodily function is disgusting and shameful and I give Feste high marks for tackling the issue as boldly as she has because she is more than likely to get some misogynist blowback for even daring to bring up the subject. It is also bound up in the relationship between her and Ethan since smell is a powerful aspect of attraction and the scent of blood is crucial to Ethan’s pursuit of Cherie. It also layers an aspect of the vampire/zombie cannibalism mythos into the mix. One of the greatest cannibal villains of horror is Hannibal Lecter and he is known for his almost supernatural sense of smell. As our friend Dracula says, “The blood is the life.”. Blood is life itself and Cherie is betrayed by it at every turn, underlining the taboo and the contempt which women are held in their bodies’ natural function. A menstruating woman is at a natural disadvantage, her own blood marks her for shame and brings danger of attack. To be pursued by a supernatural fiend who can track you because of a bodily function you cannot control or stop, in addition to wounds he gave you, is a fearsome double twist. You, as a woman, are to blame for your own potential destruction. Does this sound familiar? There’s a lot for women to relate to in RUN SWEETHEART RUN.
The action sequences were handled well, with a car crash being the one that made my HOLY SHIT meter go wild. It’s a really good one. I also give high marks to Feste for making the artistic decision to use Ethan breaking the fourth wall at certain points and keeping the violence against Cherie off camera. For one thing, it’s actually quite disturbing because my imagination kicked in immediately and my mind went places that possibly surpassed a tight focus on a beating. It’s also not that kind of movie. Graphic violence isn’t the point. The mental torment of a woman who knows that she is in danger and likely has no way out is pulse-pounding. It’s a bit refreshing to see more of a focus on psychological horror in this kind of story. At first, the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped, there was a bit of heroic mythmaking about Cherie’s final battle, but afterwards, I thought why shouldn’t the character have that? It’s done for male characters all the time. Why shouldn’t a woman be allowed that moment? There’s also another moment that really worked for me, but I won’t spoil it.
RUN SWEETHEART RUN is a multi-layered and very personal portrait of a woman in danger and a bold feminist statement of women’s lot in life and the inherent danger of being a woman that society frequently glosses over.