First things first: I have an enormously hard time imagining the viewer who would be surprised by literally anything that happens in Run outside of its final scene, and that's as much as anything because it's final scene is a charming but dopey epilogue that feels tacked on in an especially ungainly way. But the 80-odd minutes preceding that final scene? Absolutely not one surprise to be found in any of them. Run is a film whose narrative developments are as crude and obvious as its hilariously anonymous title.

So if it's not going to get us anyplace through its surprising, unpredictable story, what could the point possibly be? Well, the point, it turns out, is that Run is something much better than surprising: it is good. This is meat-and-potatoes thriller filmmaking of the first order, moving us with clean crispness through its plot (indeed, it is maybe too crisp, but I'll get there in a minute), anchoring its action in well-defined and psychologically complex characters, but it's not so invested in that complexity that it necessarily becomes a character study rather than a genre film. It keeps upping the stakes, one little notch at a time, across its entire running time, while keeping drum-tight editing throughout, so it feels like a garrotte slowly tightening around one's throat the whole time. It's not a showcase for wild formal indulgences, but it's got a few nice tricks up its sleeve, the better to let the visuals help propel the tension forward along with everything else.

The film is about a singularly fraught mother-daughter relationship. Some 18 years ago, Diane Sherman (Sarah Paulson) had a difficult delivery of a premature daughter, which we see in an opening sequence that immediately reveals just how elliptical the cutting is capable of being: there really aren't "scenes" as such, just several little fragments of busy activity at a hospital contrasted with Diane sitting miserably still in her bed, with a perilously and effectively tight cut right at the moment that a doctor backs away from a team clustered around a patient, letting us see for just a half-beat that they've been frantically tying to revive a newborn. A similar cut happens when Diane meets her baby and realises from the stiff silence of the medical team behind her that something has gone wrong, and the moment she demands to know what's going on, the film cuts to a title card defining the medical ailments that, presumably, answer that question. Which tells us as well that the cutting isn't afraid of being a little bit cheesy, in addition to being concise.

We land at a support group for home-school parents unequipped to deal with their children heading off to college, to find an 18-years-old Diane breezily declaring that she's not worried at all, both because her daughter is more than capable of thriving, and also hell, who knows, she might not even get into college. And here we start to see the layers that Paulson is going to slide into Diane, certainly more layers than she needs to just in order to make the plot work. This isn't just bright confidence masking nervous doubt; there's a kind of shrill mania behind it, a zealous conviction that if she insists that things are fine, the universe is going to bend itself around her.

So onto the story, anyway. Diane's daughter, Chloe (Kiera Allen) has a host of problems: heart arrhythmia, diabetes, an inability to absorb nutrients, and her legs are paralyzed. She clearly doesn't have much of a social life outside of her mother, but she's smart and curious and desperate to get into the University of Washington, with Diane patiently humoring her panic every time the mail comes in. And, of course, she gets a whole shitload of medication, which is where the action begins in earnest: Diane brings in a little green and grey pill for her daughter that came in a bottle with her own name on it, and something feels wrong enough about this that Chloe starts to suspect that something peculiar is afoot. The more she tries to figure out what that might be, the more she starts to suspect that Diane is deliberately preventing her from figuring anything out.

That's the part that's a little too crisp. In order to have a thriller about a mother who, for mysterious reasons (that require absolutely no effort to figure out), is tricking her daughter into taking mysterious medication, there needs to come a point where the daughter starts to figure out that something is up. Unfortunately Run jumps the gun on this: Chloe goes from "I am a guileless innocent" to "mom is trying to poison me" awfully fast, and the film's opening act suffers as a result; it feels blatantly "plotty", like it knows that it has to get through this if it's going to get to the good stuff, and it knows that we know this, so it's begging our pardon as it races at top speed through the place-setting part of the script, and also takes a few shortcuts on the way. Since it also knows that we've guessed about an hour in advance what the big twists are going to be.

Still, the good stuff in Run is very good indeed. A big part of that is thanks to Paulson and Allen, whose performance of emotional co-dependency provides a much more interesting spine for the movie than it might otherwise possess. The horror underpinning the movie isn't about surviving a gaslighting psycho, and it isn't really even about being betrayed by a loved one; it's about the terror being entirely reliant upon someone, the vulnerability that brings with it. And the very neat thing is that this applies to both characters: Paulson's embodiment of the lonely, scared undercurrents that drive Diane's behavior make her much more understandable and recognisable as a human, which in turn makes her much scarier than just a raving madwoman would be.

And a big part is that director Aneesh Chaganty is pretty damn good at his job. Run is his second feature and his second thriller, after 2018's Searching, and I can't really say that they feel all that similar to each other: besides the obvious that Run lacks the big "we're watching computer screens" gimmick of Searching, the tones are completely different. Still, they're both crackerjack suspense movies built around character behavior, and between them, they suggest that Chaganty could be a truly great director of genre films, if he can figure out how to be just a little less clichéd at the screenwriting stage (Run, like Searching, was co-written with Sev Ohanian). There are a whole lot of fine moments in the film, from the bone-deep dread instilled by deep-focus reveal of Paulson barely visible in a thick blanket of gloom, to the cheeky comedy of an abrupt cut to a tomato in a garden. And he makes extremely good use of Chloe's wheelchair (aided by Allen's strong physical performance; like her character, she is a wheelchair user), which isn't simply portrayed as an impediment that makes it harder for her to escape in a hurry, notwithstanding the dumb overtones of the film's title. It completely redefines how the character moves through space, thereby completely altering the kind of setpieces that Chaganty can stage with Allen.

This all adds up to a punchy, fast-moving film that has some agreeably nauseating moments of suspense, with the camera trapping Allen in little boxes that exaggerate her panicky expressions. It's not really all that much more than a grubby little shocker, notwithstanding the extra character depth and the focus on a poisonous family relationship. But it's a pretty great grubby little shocker, made with enough grace notes and overall skill to stand as one of the best thrillers the rise above the misbegotten movie year of 2020.

For more on the film, check out Rob and Carrie's interview with director Aneesh Chaganty!