I know trailers are often deceiving, but the one for “Running Scared” really had me excited. It’s a stylish, pulse-pounding piece of work with the perfect “tune casting” of Muse’s Time is Running Out creating a sense of urgency. So it was with positive anticipation that I stepped into the theatre to watch the whole thing, which I’m happy to report lands somewhere between very good and excellent. This new film by Wayne Kramer, who directed and co-wrote The Cooler, has an interesting approach to a mob story on top of making especially good use of the flashback device.
Let me explain about the flashback. When the film opens, someone has just been shot (18 hours before in the storyline). When the final act kicks in, the tension about how it happened and what follows is raised considerably because we realize something we’ve been led to believe hasn’t happened yet. It’s a deft screenwriting sleight of hand when the rabbit coming out of the magician’s hat is not the one we expected. Kramer has likened elements of “Running Scared” to themes and figures found in fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm and those in children’s literature like Alice in Wonderland, and this serves as a narrative compass from which the key developments unfold. You can see an allegory of the classic Lewis Carroll tale in one character’s journey, and an even more obvious reference to the Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel, more precisely the gingerbread house, at various moments in the film.
The story takes us into an unsavory world of crooked cops, mobsters, hookers, pimps and pedophiles. Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) is a low-ranking mob associate with the Perello clan in a gritty area of New Jersey. When a corrupt cop is killed during a drug deal gone wrong, Joey is ordered to get rid of the incriminating gun. He stows it in the basement, but his son’s best friend Oleg (Cameron Bright), who lives next door, takes it, shoots his abusive stepfather then runs off into the night with the weapon. Over the course of his journey, he encounters the previously mentioned gallery of the underworld while Joey tries to find him and the gun to save his own life. Then the Russian mob gets involved, and then the police in the form of Detective Rydell (Chazz Palminteri), and all bets are off. Joey at least gets help from his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga), who’s aware of her husband’s shady dealings but steadfastly believes in his goodness.
While Walker (The Fast and the Furious, Into the Blue) exudes the required presence and toughness for his lead role, it’s really Farmiga and Bright who are in the film’s most memorable moments. The part where Teresa goes to the home of a pedophile couple has an unforeseen denouement that is both stunning and satisfying, while also firmly establishing the moral ground of the movie. Farmiga, an under-the-radar beauty who projects a great deal of emotion and conviction on-screen, received strong critical acclaim for her role in Down to the Bone (2004), a very limited release that to my knowledge has not come out on DVD. But I saw the 32 year-old Jersey native in Autumn in New York (2000) and I also enjoyed her charming turn in 2002’s Dummy opposite Adrien Brody. On a side note, Farmiga plays the female lead in Martin Scorsese’s next film, The Departed, which is planned for a December ’06 release.
Bright (Godsend) has an impassive facial expression that works very well for Oleg, who’s been bruised by life but sees things with a clear eye and an unforgiving mind. One of the film’s best scenes is when Oleg is at a diner with his wounded stepfather, a sort of black sheep of the Russian mob. Oleg tells him he’s sorry, but not about shooting at him: about missing. If his thoughts were a loaded pistol and voicing them pulled the trigger, the abusive Anzor (Karel Roden) would be shot dead right then and there, people. Anzor is an unstable man who’s obsessed with John Wayne’s fate in The Cowboys (1972), and this obsession will lead to a shocking visual at a hockey rink near the end of the film.
References to fairy tales abound: Oleg can be viewed as a Little Red Riding Hood or Pinocchio figure, while the prostitute who helps him can be seen as a street version of the Blue Fairy. Plus, one of the pedophiles’ last name is Hansel. All that might sound heavy-handed, but it establishes a framework in which the film’s bloodshed, whether stylized or just plain messy, is not senseless but represents the price of depravity, of being on the wrong end of the moral scale. And stick around for the drawings in the end credits, which nicely summarize how the film echoed its fairy tale elements. By maintaining a constant level of unrest complemented by a sinister score from Mark Isham, Kramer has delivered a dynamic remixing of the timeless themes of good and evil, suffering and retribution, and love and commitment.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay