If Charles Dickens was alive today, would he try his hand at being a socially conscious fiction writer in film?
That’s the intriguing question posed by “Run with the Hunted,” a gritty near miss of a B-movie about abused children who wind up in the clutches of their very own Fagin in what is unmistakably a modern spin on “Oliver Twist.”
A solid cast decorated with screen veterans and unblinking violence characterize this near-miss from writer-director John Swab (“Let Me Make You a Martyr”).
Oscar (Mitchell Paulsen) and Loux (Madilyn Kellam) are neighbors and inseparable friends, devoted in ways far beyond their years (about 14).
But Loux’s family life has its horrible secret, one Oscar can’t go to his parents (William Forsythe plays his dad) about. He makes the fateful decision to save her by any means necessary. That involves a fireplace poker he uses on her abusive, drunken redneck father.
The crime puts Oscar on the run in the middle of the night, a dash to a city a hundred miles away. Once there, he meets a different girl, the street teen Peaches (Kylie Rogers). She brings him “home” to the warehouse where she and “my family of broken toys” live.
They’re a gang of petty thieves raised in picking pockets by their version of Dickens’ “Fagin,” named Sway (Mark Boone Junior). This stealing school is run as part of a larger enterprise by the big boss, Birdie (Ron Perlman), who keeps the promising kids around for bigger crimes once they’ve outgrown street hustling. In Dickensian terms, he’s a bit of Fagin, a bit of the murderous Bill Sikes.
Oscar lives his life under Sway’s supervision and Birdie’s protection — from the law and his parents, all of them looking for this “criminal” run-away.
“You’ve made decisions only a man should make,” the kid is told.
“You know why I’m the way I am?” Birdie asks him. “I wanted more. And I wasn’t gonna ask for it. I just took it. You’ve gotta just grab whatcha want. Ain’t nobody gonna give it to you.”
Fifteen years later, the seeds planted in childhood bear fruit as Peaches (Dree Hemingway of “The Unicorn” and “In a Relationship”) has taken on more adult hustles, and her man Oscar (Michael Pitt of “Boardwalk Empire,” “Rob the Mob” and “Criminal”) is taking armed robbery assignments.
That’s when another young woman (Sam Quartin) shows up, takes a job with a local private eye (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) and starts asking questions about this long-missing kid.
Oscar is Birdie’s most trusted soldier, Peaches is Birdie’s favorite. Both get the best advice the now-politically-connected Birdie has to offer.
“You know, men — they get to be a certain age they get delusions of grandeur. They wanna run everything themselves.”
Perlman is the seasoned cynic and veteran heavy who anchors the picture, and makes it worth watching. Pitt is also a safe bet to give you fair value in disturbed, edgy, “capable of violence” roles.
Hemingway — of those Hemigways — has her best role ever playing a young woman who picked up cutthroat cunning, and little else, in her years picking pockets.
But “Run with the Hunted” kind of rattles around like a racoon confined in a tiger cage. The milieu and characters are here, with “Lost Boys” references that don’t really hide the “Oliver Twist” structure. The “twists” in this “Oliver” are entirely predictable, including the finale.
A shocking “accident” here, an armed robbery there — a woman picking up a trail a decade after it went cold through a seedy private eye who doesn’t want anything to do with stirring things up with Birdie’s empire and the cops who collude with him.
What grabbed my attention in lieu of surprises were questions about the economics of it all. How do you make a gang of child pickpockets pay off in a First World country? The overhead must be murder, to say nothing of social workers and police NOT on the take who could not help but notice the tween-to-teen crime wave.
“Overthinking” in the audience undoes many a slackly-paced and formulaic thriller. It’s where the mind wanders when the action on the screen slacks off.
But Perlman, Pitt, Hemingway and Whitlock deliver and make this near-miss interesting enough to hope Swab’s next outing will have as much promise, and deliver on more of it.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity, adult situations all involving children
Cast: Ron Perlman, Dree Hemingway, Michael Pitt, Sam Quartin, Isaiah Whitlock, Jr., Mark Boone Jr. and William Forsythe.
Credits: Written and directed by John Swab. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:33