SPOILER WARNINGS lurk below… tread carefully, dear readers!
Run Sweetheart Run is what I’d tell you to do if I saw you standing in line for the latest Blumhouse movie, which hails from writer-director Shana Feste (Country Strong). Feste wastes an intriguing setup — a woman tries to get home alive after her blind date turns violent — on a terrible chase movie, replete with questionable performances, a stale synth score, and a cheesy ending boasting cheap visual effects. It reminded me of Blumhouse’s last movie, Black Christmas, in that it’s a complete head-scratcher. I always loved the premise as I followed the project through development, and I was excited to end my Sundance by attending the world premiere, but to say Run Sweetheart Run was a disappointment would be a severe understatement.
Ella Balinska (Charlie’s Angels) plays Cherie, a hardworking single mother who just wants to meet a nice guy, so when her lawyer boss (Clarke Gregg) sets her up on a date with a client — the charming and mysterious Ethan (Pilou Asbæk) — she hires a babysitter, slips on a red dress, and heads out for the night. She’s also on her period. Now I know what you’re thinking. Who is this sexist jerk reviewing this movie? What does her menstrual cycle have to do with the story? Well, the truth is, everything. In all seriousness, Cherie’s period deserves third billing in the credits. But we’ll come back to that.
Right away, Feste alerts us that something is off. Cherie’s creepy rideshare driver looks back at her with a smirk, and when he pulls up to Ethan’s mansion, he recalls that he’s been there before, and had a feeling she’d be going there. I hope she gave that jerk one star! Anyway, the night begins promisingly enough, and Cherie is clearly into Ethan, reassured by the fact that her boss is the one who set them up together. After a romantic evening, Cherie agrees to go back to Ethan’s house, but we the audience don’t follow them inside.
And here comes SPOILER WARNING #1…
So just before the camera follows them inside, Ethan breaks the fourth wall, looks down the barrel of the lens, and signals for the camera to wait outside, as if he’s all powerful.The camera remains on the front door for a good 30-45 seconds. And you know something terrible is happening inside that house, because even though we don’t see it, Feste allows us to hear it. We’re forced to use our imaginations. This may be the single best creative choice in the entire film, and at that point, Feste had me hooked, though I hoped she considered putting the film’s title card over that static shot of the door — Run. Sweetheart. Run. — because as soon as that door opens, all hell breaks loose. Cherie comes sprinting out of the house, and it’s clear that she’s running for her life. Great. I’m in.
Now, there are plenty of people out and about, but few are inclined to help the screaming woman with no shoes, no money… and no phone. One girl tries to help by calling the cops, but they only respond by taking Cherie in for public intoxication in one of the most convoluted arrests I’ve ever seen. The police station is covered in ‘Missing’ posters featuring the faces of young women of color, hinting at exposition to come. Oddly enough, it’s while Cherie is in jail that we learn the rules of Ethan’s little cat-and-mouse game. She’s a marked woman, and he’s going to hunt her until sunrise, and if she can survive until then, he’ll stop. But there’s a catch…
And now for SPOILER WARNING #2…
He’s Satan. Or something. Other people may think Ethan is a vampire, or a werewolf, or a monster of some kind, because we never see his frightening transformation. But I was operating under the impression that he was Satan himself. A representation of pure evil. Other critics may believe he’s the walking embodiment of toxic masculinity, preying on the underclasses, those who people rarely give a second thought because they barely see them in the first place. And I can understand that reading. Whatever Ethan is, he can smell blood, which is why Cherie’s period is so crucial to the plot. He’s following her scent.
Ethan tracks her to a friend’s house where everyone is watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here’s some helpful advice to all filmmakers, not just Feste: Never include a clip from a film that is better than your own, because it just makes the audience wonder, ‘hey, why aren’t I watching that movie instead?’ If the comparisons aren’t flattering, don’t invite them. Anyway, Ethan’s unannounced visit allows him to showcase his unique abilities, and needless to say, it doesn’t end well for any of Cherie’s friends. The question is, how will it end for Cherie herself?
As for the performances, I was unimpressed with Balinska, who made for a particularly bland protagonist, although I’ll cede that she didn’t have much to work with here. Asbæk fares better, as he seems to understand what kind of movie he’s in, even if it’s a movie I don’t like. Neither is a real movie star, and thus, this film should prove to be a real box office challenge. Betsy Brandt acquits herself nicely in a brief turn as Gregg’s knowing wife, while Shoreh Aghdashloo plays a mysterious figure named Blue Ivy whose help comes at a steep cost. Feste makes an ill-advised attempt to weave in some mythology with Blue Ivy explaining that if Cherie wants to survive the night, she’ll have to team up with another survivor. This creates a girl gang element that, however noble an idea, simply doesn’t work in this film.
Run Sweetheart Run is just one of those movies where the main character makes bad decision after bad decision, whether it’s Cherie calling her possibly abusive ex-boyfriend for a ride, or asking him to take her to a friend’s house rather than simply keep driving until morning. The writing here is just so clumsy and full of gigantic holes that are hard to address without spoiling Sweetheart further, even though this film ultimately spoils itself. I was hoping for a psychological thriller about a woman running from her blind date — a truly terrifying proposition within the world we occupy. Instead, Run Sweetheart Run offers a lot of supernatural bullshit. The film tries to assign some #MeToo-level weight to the proceedings, with Ethan more or less accusing Cherie of being a tramp whom no one would miss, but when you consider Ethan’s supernatural identity, this rationale makes little sense. The same goes for Satan preying on minorities, if that is, in fact, what Feste was going for here.
Run Sweetheart Run reminds me of the Nicolas Cage movie Mandy, which was popular among members of Film Twitter, but didn’t do much for me, because I think the scariest things in life are the things that could actually happen to you. A band of psychopaths kidnapping and killing your wife? That’s messed up! But a band of psychopaths who call upon some demon bikers to kidnap your wife is a lot less scary, and just plain silly. That’s how I felt about Run Sweetheart Run. I know I’m here to review the movie I saw, not the one I wanted to see, but this would’ve worked so much better if Ethan was just a psychopath who liked playing cat-and-mouse games with women, rather than a mythic being who can survive being run over and appear anywhere at any time. It’s a huge missed opportunity.
Run Sweetheart Run was hardly the worst movie I saw at Sundance this year — a distinction that falls to its fellow Midnight entry Scare Me — but this is a real mess, one that can’t be fixed, as it fails on a conceptual level, much like Black Christmas. The Sundance website seems to give the film credit for being unafraid to shatter expectations, but expectations exist for a reason, and this film simply didn’t meet mine. You’ll either go along with its brand of insanity, or run in the other direction in search of a story that actually makes sense.