Sundance: Girl meets boy, boy takes girl on great date, boy turns into murderous psycho. What’s a girl to do? Survive.
Everyone knows that Cherie (Ella Balinska) is due for a good date, a nice guy, someone not at all like her ex. Her beloved boss, played by Clark Gregg, practically spits when recalling that guy, so you know whatever that boyfriend did to Cherie was so bad it pervaded every aspect of her life, all the way up to her glossy office. One week before Valentine’s Day, she seems to have the golden ticket: a rich client of her firm who lives up in the Hollywood Hills and who is very eager to take her — a beautiful single mom working her own way through life — on a date ripped from Instagram. What could possibly go wrong?
Shana Feste’s initially grounded “Run Sweetheart Run” takes the concept of a “bad date” and runs with it to wild extremes, unfurling a white-hot, blood-soaked yowl of feminine rage in a tidy horror package that can barely contain all its biggest ideas. The film is Feste’s first horror outing (a multi-faceted filmmaker, she’s made family dramedies and melodramatic love stories and even a Gwyneth Paltrow-starring country music drama — “Country Strong” — over the course of a decade behind the camera), but her biting wit and inventive jump scares (genuinely scary ones! they do exist!) signal that perhaps this is the sort of thing she should have been doing all along.
Bolstered by a go-for-broke performance by Balinska (recently seen in the “Charlie’s Angels” reboot) and a distinctly female-centric spin on genre tropes, “Run Sweetheart Run” is an electrifying new entry in the growing canon of righteous revenge movies. While the film eventually builds its ripped-from-real-life story into something more supernaturally inclined, Feste’s patience with the material helps sell some of its biggest swings, allowing it to steadily morph into something very different, yet still entertaining and satisfying, by its bloody end.
Feste doesn’t linger on physical violence in the film, instead opting for some clever, confrontational camera work to keep the focus literally away from its most painful moments. Played mostly straight-faced for its first 15 or so minutes, “Run Sweetheart Run” marries its narrative twist with a stylistic one just as everything is about to change for Cherie. Her first date with the charming Ethan (Pilou Asbæk, brilliantly cast) has gone quite well, and despite lingering worries about getting back to her babysitter and cute kiddo, Cherie agrees to a nightcap at Ethan’s lush hilltop mansion. As the pair make their way through the front door, Asbæk suddenly stops, turns, and eyes the camera head-on, throwing up a hand to stop it from coming inside.
Rooted in questions of control and consent, this first little twist delivers the message with style and substance: Ethan is pulling the strings, and we’re just the ones watching (willingly?). While the camera stays outside the house, the tension builds and Cherie’s screams grow louder until she comes bursting out the door, bloodied and bruised and traumatized. Pushed into survival mode, she runs, begging for help and salvation, and eventually making her way to a busy Los Angeles street where she can only assume people will be willing to help her. They’re not.
Some audience members might balk at the resistance Cherie faces from both a pair of fellow women and soon enough the cops, but Feste’s script is doing smart work here, layering on concepts that will come home to roost later and reflecting a world that still recoils at survivors who didn’t fit some pre-set mold. “Run Sweetheart Run” isn’t just about how it feels to be violated by a single person in a position of power, but how the prevailing power structures can continue to enforce and expand those same violations. Ethan is the bad guy, the monster, but he’s only gotten where he is, in the position to hurt women like Cherie, because some people still like having him around.
What follows is Cherie on a frantic, blood-covered — an early reveal that she’s on her period establishes the film’s women-centric bent and proves essential to whole patches of plot; plus, all that tampon talk makes dudes really, really uneasy — journey through the darker corners of Los Angeles. Convinced she just needs to survive the night to best Ethan, Cherie rapidly wises up, seeking out allies, enacting methods of protection, and stripping herself down to her most feral parts. There’s pleasure in such an evolution, and Feste is particular about pushing Cherie to make smart choices; this isn’t a woman who’s going to run back into the house with the monster or go down a dark alley without a light or go knocking on the wrong door.
As “Run Sweetheart Run” gallops towards a fated final confrontation, Feste ups the stakes: this isn’t just about Cherie against Ethan, there’s considerably more going on, and not all of it is of this earth. The elements that are, however, are worth addressing, though Feste’s script bites off a bit more than it can chew when it comes to the social ramifications of Ethan’s crimes. Late in the film, Cherie literally vocalizes why she — a black woman — is Ethan’s ideal victim, even after we’ve seen an assortment of missing person posters that indicate that Ethan has gone after women of color exclusively, a subtle touch undone by pontification.
And while the film’s more out-there mythology isn’t fully fleshed out, Betsy Brandt’s queasy supporting turn as Gregg’s wife and a late appearance by a self-possessed Shohreh Aghdashloo help sell the belief that Cherie has gotten trapped in the middle of something much bigger, weirder, and evil than she initially anticipated. The question, of course, is if she’s up to the task of saving herself, enacting wild revenge for dozens of others, and taking out the ultimate in “but I’m a nice guy!” evil. Feste and Balinska have an answer for that: blazing and funny and gross and righteously pissed off, a revenge story that could only have been made by and for women with something in need of a scream.
“Run Sweetheart Run” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Midnights section. Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions will release it later this year.