Run Rabbit Run, Daina Reid
Courtesy of Sundance

Run Rabbit Run’s Unrelenting Nightmare

Premiering at Sundance 2023, horror-thriller Run Rabbit Run bridges the fantastical or imaginary and the horror of being human.

Run Rabbit Run
Dana Reid
20 January 2023 (Sundance)

In Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance (1893), the character of Lord Illingworth says, “Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” In director Daina Reid and novelist and screenwriter Hannah Kent’s Australian psychological thriller-horror, Run Rabbit Run (2023), the child’s love of her mother begins to falter after her seventh birthday. 

It begins when Mia (Lily LaTorre) discovers a white rabbit outside their house. Sarah (Sarah Snook), a divorced fertility doctor, begrudgingly lets her keep it, but once Mia is asleep, she encourages the rabbit to “fuck off”. It’s an early sign of the juxtapositions weaving a tangled web throughout the story – Sarah’s less-than-gentle nature and the innocent Mia, her mother’s tormentor.  

Grieving her father’s passing and estranged from her mother Joan (Greta Scacchi), Sarah is perturbed by Mia’s tantrums and demands to see the maternal grandmother she has never met. When Mia says she misses Joan, Sarah asks, “Isn’t it a bit hard to miss someone if you’ve never met them?” Mia replies, “I miss people I’ve never met all the time.” 

Under duress, Sarah takes Mia to see Joan, then takes her daughter to visit her own childhood home. The ghosts of the family’s past look to be recurring as Mia grows more distant, judging and condemning her mother.

Separated by more than a century, Run Rabbit Run resonates with this sentiment in Wilde’s play. The stories contrast, the former a satire of the class system, while Reid and Kent’s film hones in on mother and daughter issues – with a dark twist. 

Run Rabbit Run will be critiqued as a derivative genre film, which is a fair observation. Critics and audiences, however, shouldn’t be too quick to criticise and dismiss a film that feels derivative. Instead, we should keenly observe the merits of a familiar experience, of which there’s much to like here.

A detraction for some audiences will be Reid and Kent’s disinterest in the cyclical crescendo of scares as the suspenseful payoff. Instead, their interest lies in the oppressive sense that something is amiss between mother and daughter, and why on Mia’s seventh birthday? 

The filmmakers understand that the crux of Run Rabbit Run‘s story is Sarah’s emotional conflict – the dynamic of being repelled by a daughter that provokes her traumatic past yet is driven by her maternal instincts to protect and nurture Mia. It’s a relatable or sympathy-inducing conflict for men and women, regardless of whether they’re a parent. 

The suspense in Run Rabbit Run becomes a test of whether the filmmakers will blink. Will they heighten the suspense to the breaking point and give their audience a series of satisfying payoffs? Or will they stay firm in their conviction and sustain the pervasive and suffocating hold of the core emotional conflict, never allowing their audience to breathe?

Reid and her cinematographer, Bonnie Elliott, effectively use overhead panning shots of the landscape to enhance this suffocation. Its rhythmic presence, however, regularly breaks the suspension of disbelief by drawing the audience’s attention to the film’s aesthetic construct. An unnatural point-of-view, the overhead shot provokes a feeling of discomfort and the dread of anticipation, especially in a psychological thriller-horror. It exploits our cultural and spiritual programming of being watched from the celestial heavens. If we’re being watched, we’re subjected to scrutiny and cannot be our true selves – we become objects or subjects. If we’re watching, there’s a subconscious provocation of anxiety because of our intrusive gaze. 

When Sarah and Mia are driving towards her childhood home, there’s a moment when Reid pans over the sparse landscape, reducing the car, mother, and daughter to tiny objects on the thin line of the road. This moment effectively explores the irony of visual language, where Reid heightens the emotional claustrophobia opposite the spatial openness. It reminds us that Run Rabbit Run is constructed around emotion and why the cyclical crescendos would be counterproductive. The film is effective only as long as the emotional angst suffocates its audience.         

Sarah Snook deserves credit for bringing fresh energy to the genre. Her performance humanises the emotional conflict that compels our investment in this faltering relationship, its shades of light and dark, hope and despair. Beyond the escapism and fantasy, Run Rabbit Run provokes its audience to ask, “How would I process this in reality?” 

Together, Reid, Kent, and Snook create escapist and fantastical entertainment while keeping us grounded in reality. With its many juxtapositions, Run Rabbit Run also plays with the labels of protagonist and antagonist – here, it’s not an either, or. By the end of the film, it’s messy, where characters, all except one, are not easily defined. This nuance is why Snook is captivating as a mother confused by the metamorphosis of her loving daughter, who she affectionately calls “Bunny”, while trying to repress the past. 

Through the themes of repression and guilt, cause and effect, Reid and Kent’s film links to a side of horror cinema best described as human horror films – the horror of being human. Ted Kotcheff’s existential masterpiece, Wake in Fright (1971), is a flagship of this type of cinema. 

Run Rabbit Run, alongside the psychological drive of Jennifer Kent’s supernatural horror, The Babadook (2014), is the bridge between the extremes of the fantastical or imaginary and human horror. Opposite Wake in Fright’s singular focus of human anxiety, they are like Venn diagrams in their overlapping. 

Reid and Kent use the supernatural to enhance the inexplicable real-life occurrences of accounts of those who have memories of a past life, which inspired Run Rabbit Run. This requires them to compromise on pushing too far forward with suspenseful horror and cyclical crescendos. They protect what the story wants and needs to be about by not making the emotional conflict submissive to genre tropes. While a dramatised and heightened play on its inspiration, Run Rabbit Run attentively honours its roots – the intrusion of the inexplicable into our reality.

RATING 7 / 10