Running on Empty (Blu-ray Review)31 Jul, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Martha Plimpton.
After an on-and-off career up until Serpico in 1973 (a year that also included the admired-by-some The Offence, which I haven’t seen in decades), Sidney Lumet embarked on something of a career roll with the landmark New York cop drama, one that essentially lasted through Running on Empty 15 years later. It’s true that maybe half-a-handful of stinkers like The Wiz and Garbo Talks managed to work their way into the director’s output during that latter period, but Lumet’s mid-career output mostly ranged from above-average to great, and we’re talking about an always heavily-prepped filmmaker who worked a lot. Empty, however, was the last Lumet film that generally pleased everybody with unqualified success — until the director rather amazingly capped another iffy run that extended through his remaining career with a rhapsodically received swan song at age 83: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead from 2007.
In that 15-year prime, Lumet evolved into something close to an auteur, though it has to be noted that a lot of Empty’s critical praise rightly went to an Naomi Foner’s Oscar-nominated original script, which successfully treaded a fine line; while it makes us feel for ’60s political radicals on the run for severe personal injury they unintentionally perpetrated, it doesn’t excuse or even rationalize the crime. Almost everything that happens here emanates from this built-in tension, despite the specific and even idiosyncratic plotting turns the screenplay takes. In other words, this is not a movie where we expect classical music to play a major part.
Empty’s self-taught prodigy who gets a shot at Julliard isn’t one of the now-aging adult fugitives (Christine Lahti, Judd Hirsch) but their teenaged son. And this is the movie’s other chief claim to flame: River Phoenix got his only Oscar nomination for playing this shy brooder, who’s been living town-to-town with his folks since he was 2 years old (there’s also a younger brother). At this point in life, he’s confused about whether his allegiances should be with them or, looking toward the no longer distant future, himself. Even so, he needs some serious nudging when it comes to motivating any thoughts of self-preservation. This comes in the form of the rebellious daughter (Martha Plimpton) of Phoenix’s high school music teacher, a guy who knows immediately that this new kid in town is the best student he’s ever had but is also perplexed and highly frustrated that no grade transcripts seem to exist from other schools (at one point, Phoenix has to turn on a dime and resort to the hoary “they burned up in a fire” excuse).
This is a movie that gets a lot of the small but telling details right — from the drills the kids have to go through to learn their new “names” to the obscurity of the burgs in which the family has to hide out (the front yards are more likely to feature a crummy small highway than any neighboring trees). In the case of Lahti, this constitutes a major break from her own family not seen in 14 years. Her father is a prominent, principled and moneyed New York City hotshot whose moral code has never extended to accepting his daughter’s participation in the detonation of a military research building in which a night watchman was crippled and blinded.
For that matter, Lahti’s own sentiments run in the same direction, even though she, and not Hirsch, was apparently the one who lobbied to bomb the structure in the first place. This is a bit surprising, given that Hirsch is still something of a fire-eater — railing to this day about the political regressiveness of white-bread classical music (security concerns or not, it would likely be OK with him if his son chose to play rock-and-roll). Hirsch’s character can be silly in the way that only old Lefties can be, and he also has a selfish streak. But he’s also capable of surprises that give him something of a wild-card dimension: a complex character, to be sure.
Though it’s Phoenix’s picture if it’s anyone’s, this is an ensemble project at its core, with Plimpton coming off as a complex character as well: an agitator whose verbal lip sometimes begs for a grapefruit in the puss, though some of what she’s rebelling against has given her not illegitimate cause. Had Phoenix not died so young and so tragically, it’s possible that his co-stars might get more credit than they do these days for the picture’s success (not that even excellent reviews could make it much of a box office performer at the time). This said, it’s impossible to avert one’s eyes from Phoenix any time he enters a scene — and this is a movie where he’s in most of them, supporting nomination or not.
I remember when the young Frank Rich — reviewing Lovin’ Molly for Clay Felker’s long defunct but wonderful New Times magazine — said that Lumet always directed as if he “had to take a pee.” In terms of the director’s early days, one can sometimes see what Rich meant, but I always sensed that matters improved a lot on this count via some of the obviously simpatico cinematographers Lumet employed in the ’70s. With Empty, it was Britain’s Gerry Fisher, who was director of photography on a couple of great Harold Pinter/Joseph Losey movies (also The Sea Gull and The Offence for Lumet) after starting out as camera operator on several biggies for big-name directors.
This isn’t a story with too much physical beauty in which Fisher can wallow, but the dramatic contrast between the family’s sub-modest home and the story’s frequently pastoral outdoor settings works too well not to have been intentional. And though the situation was eventually rectified for Empty’s 2014 Warner Archive DVD-R reissue, the studio’s original DVD in 1999 was released at 1.33:1 (it’s hard to believe that quality-control Warner ever stooped to pan-and-scan, though they occasionally did in the old days). So with Blu-ray and a correct aspect ratio combined, the result now looks as good as it’s likely to for any conceivable duration, which gives a subtle added kick to the home rendering of a movie primarily renowned for script, direction and performances.
Fisher, by the way, was camera operator on The Road to Hong Kong way back when (1962). That’s the fun in studying filmographies; you just never know.