It’s been 17 years since Gus Van Sant stunned and polarized audiences with Elephant, his transfixing, oddly lyrical response to the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, a national tragedy now almost normalized by the sickening frequency of mass shootings that have continued to stain American soil. A number of films in the years since have reflected on school shootings in provocative ways, among them We Need to Talk About Kevin, And Then I Go and Vox Lux. What’s most notable about Kyle Rankin’s slick and compulsively watchable genre entry Run Hide Fight is the utter shallowness of its psychological perspective.
Sure, there’s a passing reference to the ease with which malcontent teenagers can obtain guns and explosives, and the brains behind the operation offers a token condemnation of a generation of social media addicts forever primed to be both judge and jury. But half-hearted posturing aside, this is Die Hard in a high school, with a 17-year-old female John McClane getting motivational input from her dead cancer mom as she dismantles the murderous plot using little more than gut instincts. You have to wonder if anyone spoke up during the pitch meeting to suggest this might be in questionable taste.
In the director’s statement included in press notes, Rankin talks about making the film as a way of dealing with the fear and helplessness engendered by mass shootings, hoping to re-activate the conversation about guns in America while remaining neutral. Perhaps his intentions were honorable. But given the sensitivity around mass shootings in this country, and the obstinate refusal of the NRA or its political apologists to accept even a degree of responsibility, it seems naïve to think this wouldn’t play as trivializing exploitation. Especially if you’re going to fool around with the horror trope of a “Not dead yet!” final act. I mean, seriously?
Both the unresolved anger and the rifle skills of Zoe Hull (Isabel May) are evident in an opening hunting scene with her ex-military dad Todd (Thomas Jane). She shoots an elk which lies wounded, and while her father starts patiently explaining about finishing the kill in a humane way, Zoe ambles over and crushes its head with a rock. Back home, she’s still having conversations with her late mother Jennifer (Radha Mitchell), whose chemo headscarf tells us how she died. Todd worries his daughter is cutting herself off, giving up her cell phone in what seems an aberration for a teenager; even her spiky rapport with her devoted best friend Lewis (Olly Sholotan) suggests an unhealthy guardedness.
Partly to avoid the subject of Lewis’ invitation to the senior prom, Zoe is lingering in the restroom when a group of her schoolmates drive a van through the wall of the cafeteria during lunch break and spread instant terror by killing a handful of the students gathered there.
The ringleader is grandiloquent douche Tristan (Eli Brown), who calls his plan “a reckoning.” His disciples are blubbery Kip (Cyrus Arnold), whose rage is traced back to a 6th grade bullying incident; violently disturbed Chris (Britton Sear), prone to paranoid episodes; and his sister Anna (Catherine Davis), a surly punk who is also Tristan’s girlfriend. Basically, they are Screenwriting 101 templates for nihilistic teen nightmares. If there’s any serious attempt to discern genuine pain beneath their ruthless actions, I must have missed it.
The shooters have meticulously planned their assault, planting explosives and setting fires around town as diversions to keep the authorities busy. But Tristan has no intention of remaining unobserved, calling the office to put the school on lockdown and then singling out yearbook editor Lewis as the student with the most social media followers to live-stream the chilling event. Upon learning that they are the No. 1 trending topic, Tristan responds smugly: “About time.” An attempt by the vice principal and school security guard to intervene does not go well.
Rankin (The Battle of Shaker Heights) knows his way around efficient thriller construction, getting capable assists from Darin Moran’s prowling camera, Matthew Lorentz’s nervy editing and the ominous score by composing duo Mondo Boys, which includes a moody cover of the ’60s protest song “Eve of Destruction” on the end credits.
But a numb detachment takes hold as you realize sensationalism is being flimsily packaged as social commentary on the kind of scenario that has caused America immeasurable suffering. What’s next, a pulse-pounding action thriller about a fierce transgender warrior thwarting a deadly assault on a gay nightclub in Florida? Please, no.
As Zoe starts alerting other students and faculty within the building, facilitating their escape while going back inside, mostly solo, to confront the assailants, the whole thing becomes faintly ludicrous. There’s nothing lacking in the committed performance from May (Netflix’s Alexa & Katie, CBS’ Young Sheldon). But even her establishing scenes are a tad on-the-nose, wearing Todd’s military jacket as she heads out the door while he reminds her she’s not at war. Which of course is a sure indication she soon will be.
As she wriggles through school ventilation shafts, goes mano a mano with Anna and limps around with a bullet wound in her leg, Zoe’s resourcefulness and strength grow rather than weaken, steering the movie farther away from anything resembling realism. It’s suggested that her recent exposure to death — and the intermittent pep talks of the ghost mother she can’t let go — have made her steadfast in her resolve to let no more lives be lost on her watch.
The assembly of law enforcement officers and SWAT teams outside, led by Treat Williams’ earnest sheriff, plus the attendant media circus, adds to the confusion rather than advancing the plot of what’s basically a Single Female Action Hero fantasy. And despite sharp-shooter Todd slipping into combat ops mode to rescue Zoe in a tight spot, Jane’s role is a thankless one. Aside from May, the sole actor with anything substantial to play is Brown, though Tristan is such a vile, fame-hungry creep he only adds to the sour taste left behind by this unnecessary movie.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Red River Entertainment, in association with Media Finance Capital, Good Wizard, Voltage Pictures
Cast: Isabel May, Thomas Jane, Radha Mitchell, Olly Sholotan, Eli Brown, Treat Williams, Cyrus Arnold, Britton Sear, Catherine Davis, Barbara Crampton
Director-screenwriter: Kyle Rankin
Producers: Dallas Sonnier, Amanda Presmyk
Executive producers: Bobby Campbell, Danielle Cox, David Gilbery, Charles Dorfman
Director of photography: Darin Moran
Production designer: Adam Dietrich
Costume designer: Charlotte Golden
Music: Mondo Boys
Editor: Matthew Lorentz
Casting: David Guglielmo
Sales: Voltage Pictures