We’ve all been to at least one work event that went incredibly sour, but the average person’s worst day at the office has nothing on the nightmare of a client dinner that unfolds in Run Sweetheart Run. When pre-law student and single mom Cherie (Ella Balinska) puts on her best dress to meet one of her boss’s top clients for dinner, she has no idea that she’s about to experience the worst night of her life. The client, Ethan (Pilou Asbæk), is handsome, educated, sweet, charming, and filthy rich. He takes Cherie out to the best sushi spot in LA, followed by an impromptu trip to a skating rink, and the business dinner soon becomes a date. Cherie decides to return home with Ethan for a few drinks, but things take a turn for the worst. After starting the evening with high hopes for both her love life and her career, Cherie finds herself running all night from a crazed, violent, and relentless stalker who’s out for blood. All bets are off in Ethan’s sadistic, devilish game, and Cherie must rely on pure survival instincts and summon her innermost strength in order to have any chance of lasting the night.
Run Sweetheart Run is directed and co-written by Shana Feste (Endless Love, Country Strong), who collaborated on the script with Keith Josef Adkins and Kellee Terrell. Although this is the first horror/thriller that she’s written, it’s clear that Feste and the rest of the creative team were heavily influenced by the great horrors and slashers of the past. Some of the horror genre references in the movie are obvious and intentional, like the musical motif in the score that’s unmistakably similar to the Halloween theme and the scene in which a group of characters are watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The other nods to the horror and rape/revenge genres, like the emphasis on the color red and the image of a battered woman running barefoot through the streets in a ripped cocktail dress, are less intentional than they are inescapable. Feste doesn’t dodge every cinematic cliché, but she at least picks up where other women filmmakers have left off. Rather than reverting to voyeuristic and male-centric horror-storytelling, Feste opts to focus on the victim’s perspective. For instance, the initial assault of Cherie happens off screen. In an isolated moment of fourth-wall breaking, Ethan turns to the camera just before he follows Cherie into his house. He holds out his hand as if to tell the camera to stop in its tracks. Then, he enters the house and closes the door behind him. A few tense moments later, Cherie’s muffled screams break the silence. Rather than sexualizing Cherie as a victim or reveling in the violence enacted upon her, Feste emphasizes the protagonist’s strengths and tries to garner sympathy for her struggles.
Despite Feste’s attempts to send a positive message to and about women, the main issue with Run Sweetheart Run is its kindergarten feminism. That is to say, feminism that is oversimplified, over-explained, and overdone. The movie opens with a scene in which Cherie is having a discussion about her workplace concerns with a man from HR. The dialogue is stiff, and the two characters discuss issues of diversity like they’re in a low-budget workplace training video. A few minutes later, when Cherie is on the bus, she receives a call from her boss who berates her for double-booking him for the evening (which was his fault, not her’s). His dialogue is also stiff, and his tone of voice is too neat and rehearsed. In fact, he doesn’t even sound that mad. Again, the scene takes on the tone of an unenthusiastic feminist PSA that doesn’t put any effort into exploring the subtleties or microaggressions of the patriarchy. While Cherie is still on the phone, she is groped by a man who has been staring at her since she got on the bus. There’s no subtlety to the incident, and the audience can figure out exactly what’s going to happen from the moment that the man’s face comes into frame. It’s clear that these incidents are supposed to build suspense and establish the themes of the movie, but the situations are so obvious, rehearsed, and predictable that they come across as disingenuous.
Run Sweetheart Run finally hits its stylistic and narrative stride just after Ethan attacks Cherie. When she emerges from his house, breaking the stillness of the intense shot of the closed door, the action pauses briefly as the word “run” appears on screen in blood-red font. The sudden pause is cheeky and a bit campy, causing a sudden shift in tone. This self-aware pause in the narrative puts the corny opening scenes into perspective, suggesting that perhaps the unnatural dialogue and oversimplified feminist messages were satirical. While the disingenuous tone and kindergarten feminism become issues again in the last section of the film, the middle portion gives viewers a break and a much-needed change of pace. During this section of the movie, Ella Balinska gives a dedicated and engaging performance as she showcases her emotional range. When Cherie calls on her old friends Trey (Dayo Okeniyi) and Dawn (Carmela Zumbado) for help, Balinska even gets to delve into her comedic side with some witty banter. Aside from all the chase scenes in the middle of Run Sweetheart Run, perhaps what makes this section of the movie so much more interesting than the opening is the constant changes in pace and tone. One minute, Cherie is in a struggle with Ethan in a dark alley. The next minute, she’s on her ex-best friend’s porch making amends. In one scene, she’s hiding in a disgusting convenience store bathroom with flickering fluorescent lights. In another scene, she’s dancing to a love song as white feathers from a torn couch fall softly around her like snow. Because the tone shifts so many times, and because Cherie visits so many different settings throughout the course of the night, watching Run Sweetheart Run really does feel like living through a long, sleepless, and hellish night.
In the final act of the movie, as the long night nears its end, kindergarten feminism takes the stage once again. This time, it’s joined by trite symbolism. As Cherie learns more about her vile assailant and his intentions, the horror/thriller flick broadens its reach even further into the realm of mythology. Soon, the story is no longer just about one specific woman in one specific situation. It turns into a story that’s about all women everywhere, reducing the subtleties and nuances of misogyny and toxic patriarchy across continents and cultures into a singular problem that Cherie is charged with fixing in her fight against Ethan. While Cherie is strong enough to play cat-and-mouse with a predator all night, she’s not strong enough (as a fictional character) to take on the symbolic weight of all oppressed women everywhere. And she shouldn’t have to. By placing so much meaning on the shoulders of its protagonist, the movie robs that protagonist of any meaning and takes away the specificity that made the middle section of Run Sweetheart Run so interesting. By trying to say too much, the movie ends up saying nothing at all. Or at least, it doesn’t say anything new. In terms of pure entertainment value, however, the story is adequately engaging. Run Sweetheart Run may not pack the punch or send the message that it wanted to, but at least viewers won’t finish the movie feeling baffled or narratively unsatisfied. With a relatively fast pace and a handful of unique plot devices, Run Sweetheart Run is worth the 98-minute watch.
Available on Prime Video October 28th, 2022.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
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