Kiera Allen outshines Sarah Paulson in Hulu’s innovative thriller ‘Run’

Run
Hulu/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Hulu’s latest original film, “Run,” is melodramatic, unimpactful and a shockingly good time. 

Directed by rising thriller auteur Aneesh Chaganty, the film follows an isolated but brilliant teenager named Chloe (Kiera Allen), who spends her days in a wheelchair. Opposite her, a typecasted Sarah Paulson plays Diane, Chloe’s obsessive, overbearing mother. Their seemingly perfect dynamic begins to crumble as Chloe comes to suspect that her mother is keeping secrets regarding Chloe’s physical challenges. With college application season around the corner and Chloe seemingly slipping away, Diane is willing to do anything to keep her daughter prisoner.

 If this premise seems somewhat ridiculous, that’s because it is. Yet with Paulson at the center of a star power marketing campaign alongside the film’s much discussed representation of disability challenges, the movie has gotten quite a bit of buzz. But even putting this attention — and a lack of thematic depth — aside, “Run” unexpectedly proves to be one of the year’s best thrillers.

As anticipated, Paulson ticks all the boxes of a functional villain. She’s a plenty effective obstacle, there to menacingly stare down hallways, show up on cue to foil Chloe’s escapes and punctuate them with an ever-increasingly murderous, attack helicopter parent insanity. But the melodrama of Paulson’s performance prevents her from ever being a deeply frightening or believable character. That isn’t to say she isn’t superficially creepy or even enjoyable in the role, but it’s likely that Paulson’s greatest contribution is her name recognition rather than a particularly memorable screen presence.

Unusual for the thriller genre, the hero far outshines the villain in “Run”; it’s much easier to be enthusiastic about Allen’s feature debut than Paulson’s dry delivery. It’s no exaggeration to say that “Run” only works because of Allen’s performance strength: Even when Chloe is the most terrified, Allen never undersells her character’s brilliant but sheltered, always-calculating personality, flipping from quick-witted to shocked to utterly desperate with the candor of an industry veteran.

Complementing Allen’s acting strength, the film’s domestic setting is masterfully constructed for maximum dramatic effect. From just-out-of-reach shelves to the impassable threshold of the staircase, the cinematography and set design instantly invite sympathy for Chloe’s physical challenges. But while the domestic design in “Run” constructs genuine thriller flick complications that able-bodied audiences may take for granted, there’s a liberating power in watching Chloe maneuver them with a grace and intelligence that render these barriers as momentary inconveniences for her.

It may be easy to dismiss “Run” for its occasionally indulgent approach and consistent lack of depth — the film grows less and less aware throughout its over-the-top third act. But the strengths of “Run” also lie in its undeniably excellent showcase of thrill-driven filmmaking. 

Alongside Allen’s delivery is a knack for pure editing sorcery and show-not-tell ethos. In one sequence, Chloe crawls out of her bedroom window and across her roof to find a way back into the house, eschewing her barricaded bedroom door. The sequence is incredibly thoughtful of what it shows and when, revealing the components of her MacGyvered escape plan but keeping their purposes concealed until they’re finally put to use. Elsewhere, the film communicates gut-wrenching twists entirely through a one-two punch of powerful editing choices and Allen’s delivery, pushing the film’s associative aesthetic to its farthest limit.

For some viewers, there certainly will be disappointment. Despite its masterfully constructed thrills, “Run” is never quite scary — a shortcoming for which Paulson’s merely adequate performance may be to blame. Also noticeably lacking is a real, lasting or nuanced statement on ableism or disability representation, considering how much this aspect is emphasized in the film’s marketing. But for what it’s worth, there’s certainly value in seeing a more diverse range or stories brought to the tired genre. Thanks to the strength of its star and its incredibly inventive technical approach, “Run” is a plainly enthralling roller coaster of a thriller.

Olive Grimes covers film. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @ogrimes5.