Sundance 2023 Review: RUN RABBIT RUN, Come for Psychological Horror, Stay for Sarah Snook
Not surprisingly given its country of origin, Australia, or its subject matter, the fraught, conflicted, inter- and intra-generational relationships between mothers and daughters, Daina Reid and Hannah Kent’s chilling, if overlong, psychological horror film, Run Rabbit Run, brings Jennifer Kent’s 2014 cult-classic The Babadook immediately to mind.
Unfortunately, any comparisons to The Babadook won’t do Reid and Kent’s repetitive, if often effective, film any favors. To be fair, few modern horror films, regardless of country of origin, would compare well to The Babadook’s unflinching character study of a single, widowed mother suffering a psychological break under extreme duress, natural and supernatural.
When we first meet Run Rabbit Run’s protagonist, Sarah (Sarah Snook), a fertility doctor and single mother to a preteen, Mia (Lily LaTorre), little seems amiss. Even her relationship with her ex-husband (Damon Herriman), appears relatively stable.
They share custody over Mia, and a new marriage and stepson haven’t posed problems for either Sarah or Mia. A sudden storm and the appearance of a white rabbit on Mia’s birthday, however, serves as a sign or omen of not good, very bad things to come. Typically associated with fertility and fecundity, the rabbit represents something else altogether: an unwanted intrusion on Sarah’s life.
Almost immediately, Mia’s behavior takes a turn for the eccentric and bizarre. She starts favoring a crude paper mask shaped like a rabbit’s head and starts insisting on calling herself “Alice” (after Sarah’s long-missing, presumed dead sister). She also starts seeing Joan (Greta Scacchi), Sarah’s estranged mother, a woman she’s never met.
And, in probably one of Run Rabbit Run’s most discomforting lines -- all the more, given Mia’s upbeat, cheerful delivery -- she misses other people she’s never met before. As unresolved childhood trauma begins to resurface with increasing regularity, Sarah’s psychological state slides into crisis mode.
Reid and Kent rely on a sizable audience investment in Sarah’s journey to overlook a handful of plausibility-straining plot points and scenarios, from Sarah repeatedly revisiting her dementia-stricken mother with Mia, possibly suffering from a mental illness of her own, to deciding to return to the childhood home where Alice’s room remains unchanged after several decades, a shrine to the daughter whose untainted memory Sarah’s mother reveres with near religious zealotry. The right answer (i.e., fleeing) never seems to cross Sarah’s mind.
Reid and Kent suitably ratchet up the tension and suspense as required by the genre, Reid via carefully controlled, unobtrusive direction, Kent via a script that eventually finds its footing after stumbling during a muddled middle section. They even manage to throw in a few shocks and scares that even the most experienced and/or jaded horror fan won’t see coming until its far too late. Add to that a super-steep, unfenced cliff nearby, and the template’s set for Sarah to undergo a dark night (and day) of the soul, a reckoning with ghosts real and imagined (both figurative representations of trauma), with not only her fate, but Mia’s too at stake.
Best known to stateside audiences for her attention-grabbing, award-worthy performance on HBO’s Succession, Snook is almost unrecognizable as the central character. Far from the glam or sophistication of her HBO character, the Sarah in Run Rabbit Run prefers hospital scrubs or comfort wear to anything that might be described as stylish or even form-fitting.
She’s not dressed to impress. She’s dressed to survive another harrowing day and/or night. More than her physical appearance, of course, Snook fully embodies the central protagonist’s psychological unravelling without a semblance or shred of vanity, making her performance both “real” and relatable.
Too often, though, Kent’s wheel-spinning script fails to match Snook’s performance, leaving her character stuck in neutral too long before a near perfect, memorable denouement elevates Run Rabbit Run from middling genre fare to something far better.
Run Rabbit Run premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film will stream on Netflix, on a date to be announced.