Having a mother is a scary thing in “Run,” Aneesh Chaganty’s slick thriller starring a deranged Sarah Paulson as the domineering single parent of a chronically unwell young woman played by Kiera Allen. Clearly inspired by the millennium-defining Munchausen by proxy case of all — that of Gypsy Rose Blanchard — “Run” has more in common with “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” than Hitchcock, operating at the clip of a runaway train. You think, What the hell am I watching? And you wouldn’t be wrong, as “Run” is so berserk, and so tonally schizophrenic, it’s hard to read it either seriously, or as garish camp.
The movie’s cold and clammy opening sequence in a greenly lit hospital immediately conjure visions of another hot Sarah Paulson project at the moment, Netflix’s “Ratched,” in which she stars as a demented nurse. In “Run” as Diane Sherman, Paulson is the patient here, wheeled through the hospital to meet a baby, shriveled and underweight and in critical condition, that apparently belongs to her. Never one to buck a challenge, Diane is overjoyed to welcome her bouncing ball of joy into her world.
Well, not quite. “Run” then flashes onscreen a list of harrowing medical conditions: Arrhythmia, hemochromatosis, asthma, diabetes, paralysis. All grown up, Chloe Sherman (Kiera Allen) is evidently one sick cookie, doused with gobs of medication every day. She spends her days toying with a 3D printer and building other Rube Goldbergian devices, bound to a life of the mind but also to a wheelchair.
We also learn she’s now 17 years old, which means nearly two decades of potential mama trauma are entirely swept under the rug by the film’s script, leaving the audience in the lurch when Chloe decides she wants out of the house and away from Diane. Why is she afraid? What is the source? We don’t know, but now that she’s just about 18, it’s college time, and Diane isn’t happy, venting in a support group about her impending empty nest. When she’s not helicoptering over her ailing daughter, she’s nursing instead a glass of red wine while blankly watering her sprawling (and severely organized) hydroponic garden. She then retreats to her cellar viewing room to replay old home movies of her little girl. Diane is not going to let Chloe get away without a fight.
So more ambitious measures must be taken. Chloe, through a series of convoluted hijinks, discerns that amid her daily cocktail of drugs, Diane has started slipping her daughter something called “trigoxin.” It turns out to be a… dog medication? And one that can apparently numb a human’s legs when used beyond its express purposes? When Chloe wheels up to the pharmacy demanding the name of the mystery pill (nonexistent in reality, according to Google) under the pretense that it’s part of some twisted game that mother and daughter like to play, the pharmacist sure is quick break HIPAA laws on the basis of a scavenger hunt.
It’s just one instance of increasingly difficult-to-believe human behavior in a movie full of them. “Run” is brazenly ridiculous. When Diane googles “household neurotoxins” — a search that should, in any other world, be immediately shuttled to the FBI — you know you’re in for it. That Chloe isn’t as sick as she thinks shouldn’t come as a shock, but the movie certainly serves that fact as if it should. Further reveals can be spotted from far away, but still play out with the grandeur of skull-popping revelation.
The film’s final act unfurls into a mother-daughter face-off that’s, yes, part escape-room frenzy, and also part Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in terms of how hysterically these women try to one-up one another (right down to the final frame). But “Run” more closely resembles “The Act,” the Hulu series starring Joey King as Gypsy Rose Blanchard and Patricia Arquette as her coddling mommy, yet with none of that show’s toxic, Greek-tragedy pull.
“Run” is equally about the dangers of a too-close relationship with a mother, but the lack of an emotional or deeper psychological framework for the characters makes it difficult to care, despite several suspenseful set pieces. One scene where a grunting Chloe crawls across the roof as part of an elaborate method to get to the other side sans wheelchair, rambles on to cringing, baffling lengths. Almost slapstick in its execution, it’s hard to take straight, and if the scene tilted off the rails just an inch further, this would firmly throw the movie into the realm of a campy, self-aware spectacle. Then shows up game horror-comic actor Pat Healy, who almost confirms your suspicions that “Run” is supposed to, in fact, be funny.
From “American Horror Story” to “Ratched” and, these days, pretty much her whole body of work, Sarah Paulson has proven herself a walking master class in playing deluded women grimly determined to annihilate a world that has done her so much wrong. While Diane is a bit of an empty slate, Paulson does her fiery best to fill in the blanks through a menacing performance that’s impressively well-rounded. Kiera Allen, meanwhile, shows promise as the outsmarting and clever Chloe, but isn’t given much to do outside of run, hide, and run again.
Chaganty and Sev Ohanian’s (“Searching”) screenplay hits repetitive beats and summons a deja-vu-esque feeling of haven’t I seen this before? — and you probably have — but there’s enough go-for-broke and whiplash-inducing shifts in tone on display to suggest this filmmaking duo has a future, even when their characters don’t seem to have a past.
“Run” world premiered at Nightstream. It starts streaming on Hulu Friday, November 20.