In my movie-going experience, I have never seen a film like “Running on Empty” about a family on the run because the parents, Annie and Arthur Pope, played by Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsh, planted a bomb to protest the Vietnam war in that they thought was an empty Napom factory. Unfortunately, a janitor was badly injured while in the building. For close to 15 years Annie and Arthur have been on the run from the FBI and at the time of this story, they have two sons. Their lives are all about looking over their shoulder and extreme paranoia – all the time. While watching this very good movie, first released in 1988, you quickly realize that life constantly running and hiding is barely worth living.
The one major caveat in this story is about Danny Pope, played very well by the late River Phoenix, is an extremely talented Julliard-level concert pianist. If Danny ever left his family to go to college or even Julliard he would never be able to see them again. This is the main idea behind this very well-constructed screenplay. When is constantly running for your life, become too much, when it can ruin the future of your own children?
There are several scenes in this movie that are extremely well acted and emotional. The best is the meeting with Annie and her father Donald, played by the late Steven Hill, after 14 years. Her father’s emotions when his daughter left him after their meeting, realizing that he may never see her again, is some of the best acting I have ever seen. Danny and his girlfriend played by Martha Plimpton also have some extremely powerful moments, especially when Danny tells his girlfriend the story of his family, potentially risking her life along with his family. Both Judd Hirsh and Christine Lahti are outstanding in their roles, with Hirsh probably giving his best movie performance since “Ordinary People”, released in 1980. The ending of this movie is also brilliant and contains a highly emotional ending scene.
The Rotten Tomatoes ratings for Running on Empty are too low 81% with my rating at 95% for the great story and acting. This movie marks one of the last movies of River Phoenix who died in 1993 at only age of 23 due to drug overdose at a nightclub in Los Angeles. Running on Empty is a must-see film.