If “‘Elephant’ meets ‘The Hunger Games'” is your idea of an enticing elevator pitch, you’re unlikely to be disappointed by “Run Hide Fight,” though you might want to take a long hard look at your enthusiasm. Kyle Rankin’s fictitious school-shooting thriller echoes multiple previous films in its evocation of post-Columbine classroom terror, before dubiously distinguishing itself by assuming the perspective of one female student tough enough to fight back. Merely pedestrian at the levels of direction, craft and performance, the film instead makes a grab for attention by peddling an ambiguous line on gun control and eye-for-an-eye morality. Any controversy that ensues, however, won’t disguise the phoniness of this exploitation exercise, which milks the worst fears of millions in pursuit of empty tension. A place in Venice’s official selection, even out of competition, was generous.
For Rankin, the writer-director of such openly trashy B-movies as “Night of the Living Deb” and “Infestation,” “Run Hide Fight” arrives with nominally more serious intent than the rest of his oeuvre, though there’s little gravity or credibility to its perspective on an ongoing national crisis: Even as an immersive, sensation-based work, it’s quick to give in to gung-ho action theatrics. The film’s brash approach to a touchy subject might turn enough heads to net it some big-screen distribution after its festival run, but it’s likelier to cultivate an audience on VOD — where viewers will figure out pretty quickly whether they’re compelled or repelled by Rankin’s manipulation tactics.
A grisly introductory scene, caked in metaphorical foreshadowing, will get sensitive viewers immediately on edge, depicting as it does a father-and-daughter hunting expedition on the rural outskirts of a small American town. (The location is never specified, though the film was shot on location in outer Dallas.) 17-year-old Zoe (Isabel May, from Netflix’s “Alexa & Katie”) shoots a deer, but it doesn’t die instantly; as her ex-military father Todd (Thomas Jane) advises her on the practicalities of mercy killing, she calmly takes a rock to the ailing beast’s skull. If Zoe has become stoic around matters of death, that may have something to do with the recent passing of her mother from cancer; that she and Todd seem able to bond only over recreational killing is indicative of the chilly distance in their relationship.
Mom, played by Radha Mitchell in varying stages of chemotherapy makeup, appears sporadically from the beyond to offer her daughter plucky pep talks at her lowest moments: the first, yet not the worst, of the film’s variously tacky narrative flourishes. Low moments, too, will be plentiful in the day that lies ahead, as Zoe and her secretly pining best friend Lewis (Olly Sholotan) head off to school under a veritable stormcloud of ominous signs — not least among them the sight of fellow student Chris (Britton Sear) lugging a mysterious haul from a van in a nearby field. Rankin revels in heavy-handed ironic telegraphing, opening one scene on a jump-scare chemical explosion in a science lab, or having one of Zoe’s classmates cheerily observe that she needs to seize the day “before reality kicks me in the cooch.”
That inevitable kick comes when the aforementioned van comes crashes the windows of the school lunchroom. It’s driven by pasty school outcast Tristan (Eli Brown) and his cronies, including gormless duo Kip (Cyrus Arnold) and Chris, plus the latter’s taciturn goth sister Anna (Catherine Davis) — all regular bullying targets who proceed to open fire on their lunching peers, killing many instantly and taking the rest hostage while Zoe is inadvertently sequestered in the bathroom. While she seeks an escape through the building’s air ducts, media-savvy Lewis is forced by the shooters to live-stream proceedings on his phone: Cue an alternating blend of cat-and-mouse horror and glib social media satire, linked by a rising body count.
That the lunchroom invasion doesn’t attract the attention of the school’s front-of-house staff — or, indeed, any students elsewhere on the premises — until it’s well and bloodily under way is one several yawning plausibility gaps in a story that really can’t afford to suspend our disbelief in the name of, well, suspense. If it did, however, that wouldn’t permit Zoe to become its ferocious solo avenger, as she stalks the empty corridors of the locked-down building with intent to disarm the killers one by one and create an escape route for the innocent.
Outside, adult authorities, including local sheriff Tarsy (Treat Williams, wholly wasted), fret more ineffectually about how to handle the emergency. As Rankin’s script takes passing potshots at cautious official protocol, one can only hope impressionable viewers don’t leave the film with the takeaway that being the hero is the best course of action in this situation — or, as Zoe’s marksmanship skills come into play, that guns are too readily available to American teens, but occasionally necessary if you’re on the side of the angels.
Any ethical quandaries posed by the drama are ultimately flattened and simplified by the script’s broad, stereotype-reliant characterization, which affords the actors — from May’s doughty fighter to Brown’s sneering, one-note villain — precious little room for internal conflict. In any event, as its title indicates, “Run Hide Fight” is more interested in sweating physical panic and pressure, as sustained by Matthew Lorentz’s antsy cutting and Darin Moran’s doomy, heavily blue-filtered lensing. “What would you do?” the film tastelessly needles its viewers throughout, presenting the brawniest, most impossible answer all the while.