From the first minutes, the drama of the great Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) is quite shocking. We see a young man riding a bicycle towards a house that is being approached by some cars. He walks away, but approaches the house from the back. He calls the dog, takes off his sneaker and gives it to the dog, who carries it inside. A younger kid runs out of the house and the two of them and the dog go to the other side of town and get into a van with a man and a woman. These are their parents, who coldly leave the puppy at the crossroads with the words that someone will pick it up and leave the city forever.
Very quickly it becomes clear to us that such a lifestyle is something completely normal for the Pope family, since in the early seventies Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur (Judd Hirsch) carried out a sabotage attack on the napalm factory as anti-war protesters. Unfortunately for them, there was a janitor there at that moment who was paralyzed, and since then they have been on the run. In the meantime, they had a son, Danny (this role earned the unrepentant River Phoenix his only Oscar nomination), and later another, Harry, and in those moments we realize that the FBI was clearly on their heels and that this time they managed to escape at the last moment.
They are constantly running away and changing identities, but what kind of life is that? They are constantly on the lookout, doing some unnoticeable work and are financially supported by an underground network of still active but latent revolutionary organizations. Of course, Annie and Arthur question their decision practically every day, but once they have decided on such a life, there is clearly no going back for them. However, 17-year-old Danny is a talented pianist and his gift will be recognized by the music teacher at the school in the new town who will try to persuade him to apply to the prestigious Juilliard. In addition to the attention of the teacher, Danny will also attract the attention of his daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton, with whom Phoenix was in a relationship at the time and in real life), a classmate with whom he will fall in love.
We will also learn that Annie is the daughter of a wealthy conservative family, and partly out of spite for her parents and youthful rebelliousness, she staged a diversion with her husband. Since then, she hasn’t even seen her parents, and now she finds herself in a situation where she herself could be left without her son, who is thinking more and more seriously about the normal life that his peers have. Although at first it sounds like “Running on Empty” is one of those political films, which were actually quite common in Lumet’s career, it was actually a touching and emotional drama about the decisions that direct lives. And while there is no turning back for Annie and Arthur, the question is whether they are ready to let go of their son, a young man whose life is in front of him and who is not really to blame for his fate.