By Marc S. Sanders
Director Sidney Lumet’s 1988 film, Running On Empty, depicts Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti as former radicals against the Vietnam War. They have been running from the authorities for 15 years after bombing a Napalm laboratory as part of their cause. They have two sons, one of them played by River Phoenix with a chance to attend Juilliard. His opportunity does not seem likely however as it would mean he could never see his family again, and his family is reluctant to set him free.
In a film about criminals, this is a story lacking in crime or violence. Lumet’s film is a narrative of a family and how they live by constantly changing their identities, backgrounds, and residences. It’s not a life for an innocent child, especially one with a promising future.
Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for his conflicted role. He’s quiet, but he’s torn and he’s accepting of what fate brings him. Sadly, he prevents himself from making his own destiny. A bright element comes in the form of fellow student Lorna, played beautifully by Martha Plimpton. This is her best role as Phoenix’ girlfriend who falls in love with him and shows him pure happiness. She’s the fulcrum that introduces him to what possibilities are available, but he’ll have to sacrifice his current life for a better one, and his parents will have to accept his decision.
There’s no easy wrap up in screenwriter Naomi Foner’s Oscar nominated script. A painful outcome is inevitable. Yet, that’s what makes this a great drama. The conflict is too great for an easy resolution.
What a terrible shame that 5 years after this film, at age 23, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose. Imagine what he would evolve into as an actor. Here in this role, as well as films like The Mosquito Coast, Stand By Me, and even as a young Indiana Jones, he was more than just a child actor or a teen magazine cover. He performed with a mystery to his characters where he would never reveal every dimension that his parts possessed. In a film like Running On Empty you almost wish his real life fate never came true.