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Sundance 2020: Run Sweetheart Run Review

Run Sweetheart Run feels like an old-school thriller with a touch of new-school swagger. Writer-director Shana Feste takes the time-tested one-night-in-hell-movie formula from classics like The Warriors and After Hours and injects it with modern-day anxieties to give the genre a jolt of new life.

Cherie (Ella Balinska) is a single mom living in Los Angeles. She’s dated some awful men, and all she wants is to meet someone nice. When her boss (Clark Gregg) sets her up on a blind date, everything seems too good to be true. Ethan (Pilou Asbæk), her date, is handsome, wealthy, and has charm to spare. There date mostly goes off without a hitch, but things take a turn when Ethan bring Cherie back home for a nightcap.

As they enter Ethan’s mansion, the camera hangs back on the porch, like a vampire who isn’t invited in. We remain outside in silence, growing more anxious by the second, before the shoe finally drops. There is a scream, sounds of a struggle, and Cherie flees the house all battered and bloody, looking like she went three rounds with Ronda Rousey.

Cherie was never meant to survive Ethan’s attack, and he’s shocked that she makes it out of his house alive. But escaping him isn’t as simple as finding a busy street and flagging down the cops. The unexpected game of cat and mouse feeds into Ethan’s twisted fetish. Making matters worse, the jerk is so rich that the authorities turn a blind eye to his behaviour. The less you know about the film, the better, but I will say, for some weird reason, Cherie finds that shaking Ethan off her trail is almost impossible.

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With her fancy red dress and lithe figure, Cherie comes across as more Sarah Jessica Parker than Sarah Connor. She looks like the hot girl in the slasher flick who gets murdered in the first act, not the final girl — which makes the character’s arc all the more remarkable.

Cherie undergoes a drastic transformation by the end of the movie. That meek victim we meet in the first act gives way to a tough-as-nails chick in a Rambo-style headband. Balinska is phenomenal in the role, finding the tonal sweet spot for a devilish genre film like Run Sweetheart Run. You can tell Balinska is having fun in the part, and she shows a talent for doing something a lot of actors can’t do in similar movies: she goes big without hamming it up. Asbæk, on the other hand…

If you watch Game of Thrones, then you’re familiar with Asbæk. His character Ethan comes across as though Euron Greyjoy left Westeros to star in as himself in another movie. Both characters are ruthless psychopaths who love spreading chaos. Much like Balinska, Asbæk is having a blast, but unlike his co-star, he shows no shame about chewing the scenery.

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I was immediately taken with Run Sweetheart Run’s overall vibe. It looks great, sounds even better, and sucks you into a hellish version of Los Angeles. Over the past few years, the classic John Carpenter aesthetic (a gritty VHS tape look and laser-like synth scores) has been done to death. Run Sweetheart Run borrows from that old-school style but doesn’t use it as a stylistic crutch, either. The film comes off in the spirit of the ‘80s classics it’s riffing on, but not a full-on slave to their retro look and sound. Instead of pastiche, the movie feels like a natural evolution of the titles that came before it.

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Cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek transforms the city of stars into a gritty urban nightmare, cloaked in shadows. Costume designer Nadine Haders does an excellent job depicting Cherie’s journey through her clothing. You could turn the sound off and understand the character’s journey through her “fashion choices.” By the end of the film, Cherie isn’t just a badass in spirit, she also looks the part.

Run Sweetheart Run is an unabashed popcorn flick. It’s thrilling, violent, and the plot takes some wild twists and turns; the perfect type of movie to kick back and lose yourself in for 90 minutes. It’s cool if you want to turn off your brain and enjoy the ride. However, Feste’s screenplay aims to be much more than horror movie schlock, and the concept begs for further conversations once the story ends.

I enjoy Feste’s work quite a bit. With her last film, the dramedy Boundaries, she took a cliché road-movie premise and injected it with wit, personality, and charm. Who would think Feste had an off-the-walls bonkers genre movie like Run Sweetheart Run floating around in her head? I’m glad she did. Feste takes all the meticulous craftmanship on display in her character dramas and re-packages it in a flashy horror movie package. This all translates into a pulse-pounding horror flick that gives you plenty to think about.

You can tell a lot about a movie by its opening moments. A competent director uses their first shot to establish the tone or hint at what themes their film explores. Run Sweetheart Run, opens with a pervy low-angle shot, peering between the legs of a woman in a skirt, working at a desk in an office. It’s the textbook definition of the lurid male gaze. The sequence jumps from beautiful young woman to beautiful young woman, each of them working in offices, as assistants to powerful men. Right from the onset, you know this is an angry film about terrible men, and the women finding the strength to stand up to them. It’s an anti-exploitation movie.

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This film has plenty to say about nefarious men, and how they use their power to impose their will on the marginalized. When Cherie gets away from Ethan, she’s not all alone in the woods racing back to civilization. Ethan assaults Cherie smack dab in the heart of Los Angeles. And yet, no one wants to help her. It’s easier to write her off as a hooker and a crack fiend. But if Cherie were a beautiful white woman, her assault would make the evening news. And as the film tells us, there is a reason Ethan only hunts women who look like Cherie.

I grew up watching every type of horror movie. And one of the few scenes that freaked me out was in Ghostbusters, when Gozer, a four-legged demon chases the hapless Louis through the middle of Manhattan. Gozer hunts Louis right out in the open, but nobody seems to notice or care. How could something so terrible happen in front of so many people, I thought. It wasn’t the evil hell-beast that left me shaken, it was that sense of feeling isolated while out in public. Seeing the people of Los Angeles turn their back on Cherie, a desperate black woman, brought back those same chills. Well, not entirely the same. In 2020, knowing how unkind life can be, that bone-shaking dread hit me even harder.

Run Sweetheart Run is also a story about the violence inflicted by enablers, and how easily men of influence snuff out any potential threat to their power structures. Today these emboldened men commit their crimes out in the open, so imagine what they get away with in spaces where no one has the authority to keep them in check. Cherie’s journey happens in a heightened movie world, but her fight exists, here and now, in our world.

I wish I could dive deeper into this film and its themes, but the movie works best if you go in blind. I caught the movie at Sundance, ahead of its theatrical release, so I’m hoping a trailer doesn’t drop and spoil all the fun surprises.

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What I can say, is that Run Sweetheart Run is an exhilarating horror flick and a scorching social commentary. Asbæk delivers an over-the-top performance as the film’s resident scumbag, and Balinska kicks all kinds of ass in a role that toys with the concept of the final girl. Expect plenty of laughs, a few great scares, and a giant middle finger to horror genre’s lazy and sexist tropes.

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