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Life on the run isn’t just for the guilty in Running On Empty

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Texas outlaw saga Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has us thinking back on some of our favorite on-the-lam movies.

Running On Empty (1988)

Some people who have lived on the run experience a sense of relief once they’re caught. Going to jail may mean a total loss of one kind of freedom, but it also brings a kind of mental freedom—once they’re caught, they no longer have to expend considerable mental energy worrying about and evading capture. “It’s that state of loss of energy, which is as critical a thing as can happen in your life, and we all have it,” Sidney Lumet once said of his 1988 film, Running On Empty. “You just get worn down finally, from the continual fights.”


An almost palpable sense of weariness pervades Running On Empty, a film about a family that’s been on the run from the FBI for nearly two decades. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch play Annie and Arthur Pope, who blew up a napalm lab in the early ’70s to protest the Vietnam War. The bomb left a janitor who wasn’t supposed to be there with severe permanent injuries, so the pair went on the run with their toddler. When the film opens, that toddler is now a 17-year-old high school senior played by River Phoenix, and they have another young son. When Danny (Phoenix) spots the feds on his tail on the way home from a baseball game, the family has to abruptly leave its Florida home and head far away, this time up to New Jersey, where Phoenix finds a mentor and a love interest who stir up feelings that pull him away from his understandably tight-knit family.

Running On Empty has several affecting scenes, beginning with one that sets the tone early, as the family van pulls over and leaves their dog on a street in the town they’re fleeing. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “The most chilling thing about it is that the children take it fairly well. They’ve abandoned family dogs before. And they’ve left town a lot of times.”

For the fiery Hirsch, that’s the price of keeping together a family that only has each other, but Lahti feels increasingly guilty about the price their children are paying for a crime they didn’t commit. For all the baby-boomer signifiers in Running On Empty—the counterculture, the Vietnam War, underground activism, the surprisingly moving use of James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain”—the film is first and foremost a family drama, where the politics that led to this predicament take a back seat to the people who find themselves in it.

The script, by Naomi Foner, could easily have veered into treacle—particularly the scene where the family sings along and dances to “Fire And Rain”—but never does. Even a scene that has all the trappings of melodrama, like when Lahti has a secret meeting with her father (Steven Hill), there’s no grandstanding or high-minded monologues, just weary acceptance for what has happened and the terrible price it has exacted. That scene became one of the most acclaimed of the year, though Lahti was sadly overlooked for an Oscar nomination. (Both Phoenix and Foner received nods.)


The film moves at a measured pace to one of a couple possible conclusions, both seemingly inevitable. The devastating final scene resolves some of the tension, but leaves open questions that will likely stick with viewers after the credits roll.

Availability: DVD, rental or purchase from the major digital providers, and disc delivery from Netflix.

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