The "Fire and Rain" scene you've referenced a couple of times, my god, it's just a knock-out in every way. A scene of a counter-culture family, singing and dancing to James Taylor as they clean up dinner, is practically waiting to be made fun of, or to be dismissed out of hand for milking cheap sentimentality. Yet somehow, the scene not only works, but manages to emerge as this powerful, full-beating heart at the center of the film's narrative. It could have gone wrong in so many ways, but it toes the line perfectly—and, as you mentioned, with no cuts! - and offers a wallop of an emotional payoff. It's like this brief calm in the middle of an oncoming storm—you know things are going to get rough, soon, and some very tough decisions are going to have to be made - but for a moment we get to pause and just revel in this wonderful little moment.
SOM: The family dancing to James Taylor is that very, very rare thing: a perfect scene. It appears to just be happening, unfolding (partially because it all goes down with no cuts, and they’re all in the frame at the same time) - but of course, Lumet set it all up very deliberately, and the actors had to create it. It’s perfect. It works every time.
Let’s get back to lying, though. In a normal healthy family, children are taught not to lie. In the Pope family, they absorb lies with every breath. The children are trained to participate in the family fictions. Their parents have made them co-conspirators. Danny and his brother are used to it. Danny has not questioned that part of his upbringing...until he met Lorna. His first line in the film is “Baseball is my life …”, coming after he strikes out, wildly, at his school baseball game. Danny deadpans that line: baseball is not his life at all...but it’s something he says to throw people off the scent of who he really is. He does this automatically, and Lorna clocks him on that tendency instantly. He wants to be with her, he pulls away. She asks a question, he rolls down a hill. He initiates a passionate kiss, and then flees away from her. His survival skills - his lying skills - have been compromised by his friendship with her. It is the only time he has felt close to someone. And he cannot be with her at ALL if he can’t be with her entirely, truthfully. Lorna is the catalyst. Nothing is possible without her. Gus, who shows up and steals the credit card for the getaway car, is the tip-off to the FBI, but Lorna is the emotional catalyst for Danny’s transformation.
Most people feel bad about lying. Annie and Artie lie so well that they feel no shame about it. Annie STILL defends blowing up that building when she talks with her father. Members of the radical 1970s “organization" the Weather Underground (the model for Annie and Artie’s group) fled underground, some of them for decades. In the documentary about the group, very few of the members show any repentance or second thoughts about what they did. They still feel that their violence was justified. (When Artie shows Gus’ guns to his kids saying, “Guns were never what we were about”, the sheer level of denial in that line is breath-taking. Judd Hirsch plays that complexity beautifully.
River Phoenix’s performance is heart-wrenching because of how much Danny is drawn towards transparency, sensitivity, openness … and yet the cult of his family cannot allow him that space. He’s like his mother. He’s a good, good liar. It’s a hell of a legacy to give to your kids, and Annie finally realizes that. As we’ve discussed, music is also a catalyst, as well as the silent way Danny and Annie connect. She has passed on her legacy to him, her love of music, which is also - when you think about it - her childhood, her past, her heritage, all of the things she threw away. Danny’s music is a way to keep that part of herself alive.
CP: That's so very true. I was just about to touch on the relationship between Danny and his mother, because it actually interests me far more than the father-son relationship in the film. His father - who Hirsch captures brilliantly - is a rather typical patriarchal figure in many ways, the one that Danny-as-adolescent needs to rebel against in an archetypal sense to break away from his family and become his own person. Though the context this plays out against is uncommon given their lifestyle, the basic dynamic and theme is one of the oldest, most common stories we have. So, while it's interesting on some level to me, what's far more interesting is the relationship and dynamic between Danny and his mom. Because you're absolutely right: he is just like her. He doesn't seem to have an ounce of the dominant masculine energy that Artie often exudes; he's not a leader by nature, he's a follower, an appeaser (and, I'm guessing, an INFP). And even if it's never made explicit, I always get the sense that, to some degree, Annie was caught up following Artie in their Vietnam-era activities—not that she didn't have anti-war views, but that her drive to follow Artie in protesting likely came from a desire to make the world a better place in some vague, compassionate way, whereas Artie's motives likely had more than a touch of stridency and vitriol to them.
So then she ends up in this situation where she has to go on the run, give up all her own dreams for what her life could have been, and make the best of this chaotic, mercurial reality she's in. She has to figure out an entirely different way to raise their two year old, and as much as her life becomes about survival and lying and staying one step ahead of the game, she's still a mother, and so her life is just as much about raising these kids and trying to give them sense of stability, grounding, protection, and love - even as she knows this is no way for a kid to have to grow up. And then Danny turns out so much like her—musical, creative, compassionate, sensitive, loyal—and she's caught between wanting so badly for him to live out the life she never got a chance at, and knowing that if she does so, she'll put him through exactly what she went through around his age, being cut off from his family forever. And she'll lose him. But in doing so, part of her—the artistic part—will get a chance to live on.
I'm also interested in the notion of how lying is normalized in the Pope family, because I hadn't really thought about it that explicitly until you just brought it up. The ramifications to closeness and intimacy are obvious, but I hadn't thought much about the warped morality of it all, in terms of raising children that way, where lying is not only second nature, but absolutely necessary. (We don't spend much time with the younger brother, Harry, but I'd love to know how he gets through his life.) It's strange to imagine growing up in a family where being a good liar is something to be proud of, with its own set of rules, and how normal that seems to kids growing up in that environment, because that's really all they know. But of course, that only works if the family unit is isolated and insulated. And so once Danny starts connecting with Lorna, and really opening up about everything to her, he gets exposed to this totally different, outside perspective on how he's grown up, and how messed up and unfair it has been, and starts to think about what he wants and needs for himself, apart from his family, for the first time. You're absolutely right that Lorna—and his love for her—is the true catalyst in the movie.
SOM: I have a slightly different take on Annie, at least in terms of her being “caught up following Artie” in their Vietnam era activities. That’s how her parents chose to look at it, blaming their daughter’s criminality on Artie, but she says to her father, in regards to blowing up the building, “It was my idea.” I believe her. Artie jokes he was raised by “old Jew Bolsheviks”, and it seems that his political behavior was seen in the context of their own political activity, part of how the family had operated, their shared values of political action and resistance and all the rest. But Annie—like Patricia Hearst, like the Manson followers, like the Weather Underground members—mostly emerged from upper- or middle-class backgrounds. Self-hatred, or class-hatred, was a huge motivator, as well as sticking it to her parents. She called her father an “imperialist pig” (recall the creepy Patty Hearst recordings done while she was in captivity, and how she talked about her father), and so I get the sense that she was much more of an “ends justify the means” person than Artie was. When Gus re-appears, it is clear that there was a bond between he and Annie. Artie barely matters to Gus. The way he asks about Artie, the way she answers, suggests a lot of inner conflict: Annie not wanting to say anything bad or unflattering about her husband to this man who had probably once been her lover as well as her comrade. Gus sneers at how she has copped out, sold out. But listen: When he says to her, “Why don’t you take this nice little suburban family, and turn them all in? Cut them loose!” What is her answer? It’s not, “I could never turn my kids in” or “I need to be near my kids.” Or “Never, not in a million years.” Her answer is: “I wish I could.” It's chilling. It’s human. It’s extremely eloquent. Gus looked at her and saw a mirror. She was a leader, like he was, not a hippie-dippie follower in over her head.
Time, and isolation, has changed her. Being a mother has changed her. Seeing her children pay for her mistakes … that’s something she did not expect, something she cannot abide. Danny is 17. Think about it. Annie and Artie have never really discussed what the hell the plan is for their kids - which is part of what is so touching about this family. There’s a naiveté there. Annie and Artie are living another kind of lie, not just that they are on the FBI Most Wanted List … No, the deeper lie (or, fiction, perhaps is a better word) is that the family will be able to stay together always. They seem to truly believe it. They seem truly blindsided by the college-application conversation, as though they never saw it coming. They haven’t looked ahead of next week. It’s like Danny has grown up while they weren’t paying attention.
In their different ways, both Artie and Annie suddenly realize that Danny is not a child anymore. There’s that gorgeous scene (played out with no cuts) where Danny sneaks home late at night, and Artie is up. Artie asks him if he’s been with Lorna. Danny nods Yes. Artie then begins to talk about how much he likes Lorna, and the scene is awkward and sweet, with Danny not saying a word. Out of the blue, and in the same quiet tone, Artie says, “Are you sleeping with her?” Danny, startled, doesn’t have time to lie. He nods. Artie nods in response, and says, “Okay. Get some sleep.” What a scene. The look on HIrsch’s face after Danny quietly goes up to bed speaks volumes. Artie knows now. If there’s a harbinger to Artie’s swift and unexpected action in the final moment of the film, it’s there in the look in Hirsch’s face that closes out that nighttime scene. It’s beautifully set up.
CP: That’s an absolutely wonderful scene. The whole film is full of such perfect, understated, human moments like that. It's a credit to the screenwriter (who was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for the script - and is Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal's mother by the way!), as well as to Lumet's impeccable direction. It's really hard to overstate how well he works with this material. To think of all the different kinds of films he was able to make over four decades, it's really something, and I think he gets astonishing performances out of the entire cast here.
It's interesting to hear your take on Annie as well, because I can totally see what you're saying, even while not completely agreeing with it. I mean, yes, she does tell her father the bombing was her idea - but at the same time, you were just mentioning earlier how great a liar she is, almost reflexively by this point. So I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility to conclude that this was another one of those lies, told to her father as a way of doing what her lying often does - pushing him away, because it's too painful a discussion to navigate otherwise. She's hardened by that point, because she has to be. Either way, the entire scene is so heart-wrenching, both in the moment itself and what it portends for both of their futures - and Danny's as well. They'll be getting a version of their daughter back, in Danny, whom they've never met, and she'll be losing her son, as well as her Dad all over again. It's such a small, intimate scene, but the stakes are so high.
SOM: I still think that Annie’s relationship to Gus, the clear closeness she has with this truly frightening individual, speaks volumes about who she was, still is (“Take a walk with him, Artie,” she encourages), as well as her role in the group back in the day. Her guilt, so apparent it vibrates off of her, comes as much out of the guilt at her leadership role as anything else. “He wasn’t supposed to be there,” she says to her father, of the janitor who was blinded in the bomb explosion. She’s still making excuses. It may sound like I’m being hard on her. But that’s not my relationship to the character (or to any character I respond to emotionally in film). She’s emotional, selfish, extremely kind, exhausted, and not entirely trustworthy. Still. And I think she knows it. If Artie hadn’t walked in the door, how much further would it have gone with Gus? I think she still feels the draw of violence. I think she still could be talked into it. She’s a very complex woman. I love Christine Lahti’s performance because it doesn’t plead for our sympathy. She doesn’t “make a case” for this woman’s actions. Instead, we just get a person, who made horrible mistakes, continues to make mistakes, and is trying, trying, to hold it together. It’s very powerful work.
CP: You know, the more we’re talking about this, the more I'm realizing just how much of this film really, truly is about parenting - how to be a good parent in difficult situations. The choices and sacrifices Annie and Artie are making to give Danny a shot at life, the decision her own parents make to take Danny in as their own, despite how badly she's hurt and saddened them by her fifteen-year disappearance (they found out they had another grandchild from the media!). So much of Running on Empty is about how the choices of one generation affects the one that follows, how the “sins” of the parents are passed down to their children. Yet there's love, between all these characters. Such powerful love, by the end of the film; the best kind, the selfless kind that wants for someone else's happiness.
SOM: I agree with your observation that the film is about parenting. There are multiple parents in the film. Annie and Artie. Mr. Phillips (no mother in the picture, apparently). The evocative reference to Artie’s parents. And the glimpse we get of Annie’s mother and father. I just want to mention the scene where Danny tracks down his grandmother, pretending to be a pizza delivery boy so that he can get a look at her, maybe to feel a connection to his severed past. She seems pretty “uptight,” as Danny’s younger brother observes when he sees their picture in the newspaper. He’s right. Danny shows at the “service entrance” of Annie’s parents’ brownstone in New York City (the fact that it even has a service entrance says it all). The maid is baffled. Nobody at this house has ordered a pizza. Nobody has probably ordered a pizza from that address ever. Annie’s mother (Augusta Dabney) appears, at first hidden behind a gigantic vase of flowers, and then comes to the door to see what this all might be about. Note the expression on her face. She is not imperious. She is not offended. Instead, she is concerned that the delivery boy will have to pay for the pizza himself. You know that she would give him the money if that were the case. Now I don’t know about you, but that is such a precise detail, a tiny moment that tells me everything I need to know about her.
This leads to the final moment. Knowing that Danny will be going to live with that woman we saw in the doorway, a kind and open face, worried that this poor kid will have to shell out money for somebody else’s mistake, is comforting. He will be cared for, even loved.
CP: I so wish we could talk about this movie forever - but I know we need to wrap up. So let's talk about that very last scene then, by way of conclusion. Danny rides his bike vigorously towards the meet-up spot, after having just said goodbye to Lorna for the last time, ready to head back out on the road with his family, to assume a new identity and leave New Jersey—and a spot at Julliard—behind for good. The truck is ready to go and he dutifully throws his bike in the back. Then his dad tells him to take it out and you see this look come over Danny’s face. There's so much going on emotionally in those final minutes, but also very little actually said out loud. Take me through what those final moments do to you, as a viewer.
SOM: Well, one of the best things for me about the final scene is that Artie’s change of heart, his resolve to let his son go, has happened internally, off-screen. Up to that point, he has been terrified at the thought of breaking up the family unit, and very bully-dominant towards his almost-grown-up son. There was the expression on his face following the late-night talk with his son about Lorna. His realization that Danny has made a connection, a connection that teenage kids are supposed to start making. Who is Artie to deny his son that? But the Oscar-nominated script lets us reflect upon how he came to the decision, if it was made in advance, or if it came to Artie in that very moment when he saw his son barreling towards the truck on his bike.
What then follows is a bombardment of love, three people on one side pouring it onto the solitary figure outside the truck, a kind of love that is white-hot unbearable in its intensity, and leaves the audience wrecked and depleted. Artie wants to give his son something joyful and positive to remember them by, final moments being so crucial. Annie’s final moment with her father back in the day involved her calling him an “imperialist pig” and holding him responsible for the Vietnam War and everything else that was wrong with the world. Her father’s face has absorbed the devastation of that - you can SEE it on him, as impassive as he may appear. You know that any time he looks at her baby pictures, or school pictures, he will not remember that smiling happy young daughter. He will only remember the recrimination of that final moment, her hatred and contempt for him. That rejection has marked him, ruined his life. Artie holds whatever loss and sadness he may feel in check. So does Annie. Let’s give the kid a final glimpse of his family that is worthy of the best part of us: our love, our humor, our closeness. Here ya go, kid. Never forget that this is who you are, this is who WE were, and it is GOOD.
You can’t help what family you are born into. It’s sheer accident. Some people are lucky. Some people are unlucky. Children grow up in the midst of their parents’ adult problems and issues. If the adults handle themselves like grown-ups, the child will be protected. If the adults don’t handle themselves well, the child absorbs stress and pain and chaos with often disastrous consequences. (I’m thinking of Henry James’ “What Maisie Knew”: two monstrous narcissists go through a messy divorce, and the book is seen entirely through the eyes of their extremely young daughter, who tries to understand what is happening. It’s a devastating book, an indictment of parents who do not protect their children’s innocence.) In Running on Empty, we see family partially as accident, but mostly as intentional. They are outlaws, and so all they have are one another. In one respect, it’s like being a member of a cult with well-defined rules. (Artie expects his son to groove to rock ’n’ roll, not be drawn to the kind of music he himself doesn’t care for personally.) But one of the things Running on Empty does really well is show a family that deals with one another intentionally because taking one another for granted would be dangerous to their survival, and a betrayal of their shared values. And so their family dynamic is filled with conscious intentions, creating moments that work for them, that ground them to the earth (the birthday ritual), focusing on the things that matter to them (caring for each other, not getting swept up in materialism, not caving to conformist “keep up with the Jones” values that crush so many families). Family is seen as a conscious act, an act that must be renewed on a day to day basis. It’s hard work. It’s worth it.
Running on Empty is one of the few films that made me call my family members afterwards and tell them how much I love them.