Quality thrillers can skin their cat with a balance of two routes: show or tell. Screenwriters, directors, and performers plan and execute choices emphasizing either verb to dramatic effect. There is power to be found in both actions. Showing without telling creates searing imagery that needs no additional exposition. By contrast, telling without showing causes our imaginations to paint the missing picture on our own, many times in more graphic ways than if it was splashed into our eyes on screen.
The real skill is in the balance. When do you show, when do you tell, and how much? Too much explicit imagery over the patience of the implied veers to excessiveness. Explaining every little thing with extraneous over-exposition dismisses the intelligence of the viewer and oversimplifies what is meant to be a titillating challenge. With a pair of thumbs from a Nick Offerman GIF, two current writers and filmmakers that get this are Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian. Their new Hulu original film Run is an entwined illustration of that balance between show and tell.
In a rural Washington small town, the middle-aged single mom Diane Sherman (Emmy winning TV favorite Sarah Paulson) has spent the last 17 years pouring her heart and soul into raising her daughter Chloe (the debuting Kiera Allen). Diane feigns the excitement of an upcoming empty nest. She has ensured a successful college-bound track for the capable and STEM-centered Chloe, but the level of protective attachment is high and for good reason.
Run’s cold open presents the harrowing and fragile circumstances of a premature child’s arrival into a NICU world of tubes and tests. What follows in the opening credits is an ominous stack of formal definitions of no less than five medical ailments Chloe endures in her day-to-day life, ranging from arrhythmia to paralysis. Raising a child with disabilities is taxing, yet rewarding work. Diane has organized a farmhouse bubble for the two of them built on trust, device-free homeschooling, garden-grown produce, and a strict routine of medication and safety checks.
Chloe is eager to spread her youthful wings beyond this home and hamlet and it becomes very clear her mom isn’t all that ready, despite her insisting frazzle. The cracks of poise Chloe notices grow wider. Receiving new meds in her mom’s name instead of hers raises an alarm. The curious possibility of Diane withholding college acceptance letters arriving via mail raises another one.
Equal to the qualities listed above, Chloe (and we, the audience) is left to grit and ingenuity to decipher what could be going on with all the increasing subterfuge from Diane. This is where Sarah Paulson takes over. She has a range to go from soft and slight to wrought and enraged in a puff of time. How can you run without useful legs? How can you race when asthma chokes your lungs? You figure it out solo. With each clue competing with a coverup, the truth loses blur and Chloe’s shock skyrockets.
All along the way, we’re back to the balance of show or tell. Chaganty and Ohanian blew our socks off two years ago with Searching, a movie that was show-forward with the high concept of extruding its narrative solely through consumer screens. Run is far more traditional, yet the team’s creative chops of implied showing and telling are brilliantly on display. Just as with Searching, the teases and the twists hint enough and shock enough without oversaturation of excesses, making for their second PG-13 thriller in a row that races hearts without exploding what they pump all over the place.
The keys to the balance on the table are patience and precision. Suspense films with the composure of choosing its show vs. tell spots resonate better than smash-and-slash roller coasters and talkative bores. Chaganty and Ohanian came to Run with a strong premise that had depth of question marks to present behind it. Too many other thrillers never make it past their single starting idea. The duo slow-plays their escalating premise in a film that never seems to run out of constricting connections.
The precision after that comes from the contributing artists after the storytellers. The Searching editing team of Will Merrick and Nick Johnson return to give Run the economical pacing to match its intended endurance. Cinematographer Hillary Spera (The Craft: Legacy) plays coyly with the angles and perspective limitations of a wheelchair-bound lead to great effect. Composer Torin Borrowdale (Searching) tunes up a creeper of a score that also shows matching moderation of when to prod and when to percolate. The edge of the atmosphere is all there.
If there is a dealbreaker to this harmony of implicit versus explicit with words and images in Run, it’s the “why” factor. Deep as the strong story may be and chiseled as the product may be as well, a measure of believable reasoning still needs to be tight for a domestic thriller. We’ve seen too many silly decisions and serendipitous happenings in lesser films strip away the hook factor. The film’s tagline warns of a “love so fierce you can’t escape.” That is a torque turn or two loose here in Run where a few leaps strain senses of credulity. The devil is in the details and those thrill just fine.