Running Scared is a few plots shy of being well-thought out. It starts with Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) a low-level employee of an Italian mob family who over the course of 18 hours has one hell of a time. First he has to get rid of a gun that killed a crooked cop in a drug deal gone bad. Instead of disposing of it however Joey goes home and hides it in a panel in the basement as future collateral only to have his 10 year-old son’s best friend Oleg (Cameron Bright) discover and abscond with the weapon so he can shoot his abusive Russian stepfather (Karel Rodan) who is also mob connected. Then we get to follow young Oleg now on the run as he encounters all manner of nocturnal miscreants. I mean seriously this is the kind of night that should permanently screw the kid up. Meanwhile Joey--aided by both his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) and son--is trying desperately to get to the boy and the gun before the mob factions find out. Not one of your more stellar evenings. What is cutie-pie Paul Walker doing shooting people having sex on a dryer and saying the f-word over and over after he just saved a pack of Huskies from freezing to death in the Antarctic? Kind of bad timing for Walker to have his feel-good family movie Eight Below released a week before this R-rated bloodbath. Running Scared definitely shows an edgier Walker but the outdoorsy movies just work better for him. The young Bright on the other hand has made a short career of playing creepy sullen kids. First he disturbed us out as a cloned child in Godsend; then he made us really uncomfortable as a kid who claims he’s Nicole Kidman’s reincarnated husband in Birth. So playing a boy who goes through one of the more nightmarish evenings ever isn’t really a stretch. As a side note Farmiga (The Manchurian Candidate) does a nice job as Joey’s wife who has just as much chutzpah as any of those testosterone-pumped mob guys. This is how writer/director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) describes Running Scared “It’s like a Grimm’s Fairy tale nightmare but taking place in the Mob world…” Well no kidding. Kramer uses familiar gritty crime drama techniques such as framing the film in that grainy washed out look and doing slo-mos of people getting plastered by shotguns. You know the drill. It’s effective but the problem is while Kramer bombards the audience with one Grimm situation after another--from pedophiles to crazed pimps to ear-biting gangsters--he forgets to create a cohesive film. Of course the director nearly redeems himself with a clever twist near the end but it’s just not enough to make up for the many times you’re sitting there cringing and thinking “What the…?”
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.