A good two-thirds of Running Scared feels like the most extravagantly stupid thriller in recent memory, like Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog reconfigured for the bread-and-circuses crowd. And then comes an image that throws everything into question: When viewed through a concave piece of translucent bathroom glass, the silhouettes of two predatory characters appear unmistakably as alien creatures, with thin fingers that droop like tendrils. Okay, so what planet are we on? It certainly doesn't look much like Earth. An argument could be made that Running Scared operates in the tradition of garish genre films like Sin City, which populate their worlds with a deeply cynical survey of humankind. But the ugliness on display in Running Scared has neither Sin City's context nor its wit, and it offers little more than stylish excess for its own sake, with no clear aspirations other than to twist people's arms until they yelp "Uncle."
It says something when the most sympathetic character is a kid who shoots his dad with a stolen pistol. Unfortunately, that gun belongs to neighbor Paul Walker, a low-level Jersey gangster who was supposed to bury the piece following a bloody shootout with undercover policemen. After witnessing Walker tucking it away in his basement stash, young Cameron Bright decides to take revenge on his abusive stepfather (John Noble), a mobbed-up Russian thug who terrorizes the kid and his prostitute mother. Putting two and two together, Walker rushes to eliminate any connection between the crime scene and his gun, which means finding the piece before the police or his gangster cohorts get to it. Walker's search leads him and Bright on a nightmarish odyssey through a gauntlet of mob enforcers, crooked cops, drug dealers, pimps, whores, and child molesters.
At a certain point, Walker's continued search for the gun doesn't make much sense, and that's before a third-act twist that retroactively clouds his actions rather than clarifies them. And even that twist isn't as head-scratching as the coda, which feels like the sort of ending that a studio demands after a poor test screening. Still, there's no denying that Running Scared makes a powerful impression, even though the aftertaste lingers like a plateful of garlic blossoms: No run-of-the-mill thriller, this exuberantly nasty film is almost enough to fool viewers into believing that it's some brilliant genre mash-up in the Tarantino mold. Or alternately, a shamelessly crass and irresponsible exercise in commercial exploitation. Audiences will have to scrape their jaws off the pavement before deciding on an interpretation.