After a drug bust goes bad, leaving a roomful of dead bodies, mob lackey Joey is told to dispose of a gun used to kill a cop. Instead, he hides it in his basement as insurance against his gang. When his son's 10-year-old best friend, Oleg, finds and uses the gun to shoot his abusive, drug-addicted stepfather, Joey sets out to find Oleg and the gun before the mob or the cops get to them.
As the night progresses, Oleg encounters a series of twisted characters, including a malicious junkie, a murderous pimp, a protectively violent hooker and a couple of serial-killing pedophiles who kidnap him. The hunt for Oleg and the gun eventually draws in Joey's wife and his own son, exposing them to danger, as well. Before the night is over, Joey must decide whether to sacrifice Oleg to save himself and his family.
A character is described as having sacrificed his position in a crime family in order to marry a pregnant prostitute (and indentured slave) so she wouldn't have to have an abortion. (The nobility of that act is obliterated by his later drug addiction, violent abuse of his wife and the child, and profession as a drug manufacturer and dealer.) Joey's wife sometimes attempts to keep her son from swearing. She also tries to help an abused neighbor. And she urges her utterly irresponsible husband to resist giving in to the really bad kind of evil.
Joey is guilty of exposing Oleg to danger in the first place, but he eventually does what he can to protect the boy. A surprise revelation toward the end of the film is meant to recast one character and the entire film in a more redeeming light. That said, not only does it feel like something made up at the last minute to provide a hint of meaning to the carnage, it also fails to justify (or explain) that character's choices throughout the story.
Compelled by the sight of his wife wearing thong underwear, Joey initiates sex. A brief but graphic scene follows that involves a clear view of him performing oral sex. Explicit movements and sounds follow as the two have intercourse; both are seen mostly naked from behind. Later, the mob guys meet with a dirty cop at a strip club. Dancers are seen completely nude.
Asked to wait in the car outside the strip club, Joey's son, who is the same tender age as his friend, Oleg, asks his dad if there are really naked women in there. The boy comments that he's seen his mom naked and doesn't know what the big deal is. Joey promises him it's always a big deal. Later, this male role model plays some music for Oleg, explaining that one day the boy can use the music to "warm up the back seat" of his car before having sex with a girl. Several gangsters threaten Joey by describing the crude sexual things they plan to do to his wife.
The film opens on a drug deal in a seedy hotel room that gets busted up by a group of crooked cops in ski masks. A high body-count bloodbath erupts in which men are sliced, stabbed, and shot in the head, chest and crotch. Blood spatters, sprays and pools.
An abusive stepfather hits his wife and son. Oleg shoots the man and runs. Later, Oleg is nabbed by a drug addict, leading to his witnessing a multiple shooting in a public restroom. After that, he sees a cartoonish pimp character bash a prostitute's face into a car headlight and hold it there against the glass before preparing to cut her chest. When the boy intervenes, the man holds a knife to his face and threatens to cut him.
It gets worse for this kid, whom writer/director Wayne Kramer has committed to dragging through the worst of humanity. While running from his stepfather in a parking lot, Oleg ducks into a van to hide. It belongs to a seemingly nice man and woman who just so happen to be pedophile serial killers. They hold Oleg and two other kids captive in their apartment, where they encourage them to "hug" and try on costumes in front of a video camera. We don't see the kids being harmed, but we do hear one refuse to "touch it" from behind a closed door.
Eventually, Oleg is discovered tied up with a plastic bag over his head. He's found stuffed into a closet with medical cutting instruments, a body bag and DVDs labeled with kids' names. After creating these monsters in a pointless subplot only barely connected to the rest of the film, Kramer obliges his audience's stoked revulsions by having the rescuer blow the abusers away.
A man describes beating his abusive father with a baseball bat, leaving the man nearly a vegetable. Additional confrontations include the breaking of a man's finger, another man set aflame, another executed with a bullet to the forehead, another's ear bitten off, another blown to bits and another tortured for information at a skating rink by having hockey pucks smashed into his face. A climactic shootout kills off another dozen or so in bloody fashion. Finally, a woman is killed by an explosion in an apparent suicide.
Crude or Profane Language
Most movies get edited for broadcast television before they wrap, including movies even the director can't imagine ever playing on commercial TV. Kramer acknowledges that 700 lines of dialogue had to be dubbed with less severe swear words for the TV edit. I'm surprised it wasn't more. The f-word is used to modify or become every imaginable part of speech, sometimes showing up in the same sentence half-a-dozen times. I guess it's supposed to give the mob guys some kind of street cred, but it quickly becomes obscenely ridiculous.
As any good mom would, Joey's wife objects to her 10-year-old son's bad language and to her husband saying the f-word in front of the boy. By film's end, however, she seems to realize that that ship has already sailed, so she joins the family swearing club.
Of course, many other profanities are also delivered (with thick New Jersey accents), including around 15 abuses of God's and Jesus' names, 30-plus uses of the s-word and 10 uses of "b--ch." Male and female body parts are used as insults about a dozen times, often in a crudely sexual manner.
Drug and Alcohol Content
During a drug deal, drugs are chemically tested for authenticity. Joey's Russian neighbor has a meth lab in his back yard. He is seen doing drugs and getting high. His wife also appears to be hooked on drugs. Eventually, the meth lab explodes, killing a character. In a park, Oleg is nabbed by a drug addict who drags him to a seedy public restroom to use his gun to steal drugs from a dealer. Characters smoke and drink throughout the film.
Wayne Kramer has described Running Scared as a kind of Grimm's fairy tale seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. And for those who missed the surreal clues in his hyperkinetic, ugly film, an animation in the closing credits spells out the subtext.
But there's just no way that small nod to an artistic motive makes sitting through this vile exercise worthwhile. Even if the movie wasn't a cinematic mess of over-directing, unanswered questions and nonsensical plot twists, it's a pointless celebration of the worst kinds of excess and vice. Requiring several edits to escape an NC-17 rating, Kramer's film is a dank, grimy, forced-rush.
Clinging to his fairy tale notion, Kramer describes the nausea-inducing pedophile subplot dropped into the middle of the film as a kind of Hansel-and-Gretel gingerbread house. But it carries none of the moral structure of a fairy tale, only the reminder that there are evil people who enjoy hurting children. And why not show a couple of them in action, Kramer figures, to amp up the darkness?
Kramer has anticipated responses like mine: "People might see Running Scared and think that I'm a freak for making that kind of film. But I don't think that the film lacks a moral center. I think people are trying to do the right thing in the film. ... But violence is violence. It's ugly. And it should be portrayed as being an ugly thing as opposed to being sexy and cool."
Well, he succeeds in making the violence ugly, but he also glorifies it, whether he'll admit it or not—especially in the bloody hockey rink death-match shot under "cool" black lights that reverse out all the colors. However gritty, this film is no honest exploration of the consequences of crime, child abuse or drug use. In the director's own words, "It's a ride, and it shouldn't be taken too seriously." If that's true, then the endless violence, child abuse and drug use are all meant as entertainment, right? Kramer can't have it both ways, unless he means for us to be entertained by the cruelty of "realistic" violence and pedophilia. Killing all the bad guys in the end and suddenly morphing one into a "good guy" doesn't create a moral center. And it doesn't make for good entertainment on its own terms, either.