Running On Empty (1988)

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Running On Empty (dir. Sidney Lumet) tells the tale of a fugitive family that is constantly moving from town to town and changing their identity, but sans any action-packed frenzy you would expect from such a plot.  The parents are Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti), who are on the run after staging an anti-war protest bombing of a napalm laboratory in the 1970s.  Their eldest son, Danny (River Phoenix), has been escaping alongside them ever since.

The film revolves around Danny as he begins to venture out of this fugitive lifestyle—his talent on the piano leads him to Juilliard auditions and he falls in love with his music teacher’s daughter.  River Phoenix is the reason I watched this film (as I suppose is the same for many others) and his performance is mesmerizing—after all, he did receive an Academy Award nomination for his sensitive portrayal.


Danny’s musical talent lands him a Juilliard scholarship.

The opening scene depicts the family relocating and leaving their temporary home (and the family dog in the process) as the FBI narrows in.  The kids don’t complain; it’s routine-like, and sadly the only thing they’ve ever known.  We are at once informed of Danny’s love of music and a future conflict of interest as we see him attempt to fit his practice keyboard, an unconventional belonging to bring on the run, into the pickup truck.  We can immediately tell that the journey this family will take us on is a heartbreaking one.

Running On Empty is filled with good acting—you feel that you are watching the inner turmoil of a real family onscreen, especially with the genuine performances of mother and son.  Christine Lahti embodies the plight of a concerned mother who doesn’t want her children to pay the price of her actions. What is the right thing to do?  Have Danny stay with them and sacrifice his future, or allow him to pursue his passion with the risk of never seeing him again?  On the other hand, River plays Danny incredibly well, bringing a sort of heightened vulnerability and pureness to his character that was quite rare in actors of his generation.  He is also one-half of the bittersweet chemistry between Danny and his girlfriend (Martha Plimpton).

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Danny Pope and Lorna Phillips.  Martha was River’s real-life girlfriend at the time.

One of my personal favorite scenes is when the family and Lorna are gathered together on Annie’s birthday, dancing and singing along to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”.  The simplicity of the scene makes it so believable and heartwarming, and fully captures the sentimental bonds of family.  As River put it perfectly, “In simplicity there is truth.”


“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you again.”


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