Fans of the “I Love You, My Child, But You’re Really Creeping Mommy Out Right Now” subgenre have a treat in store with Daina Reid’s “Run Rabbit Run,” which hails, like a couple of other notable, similarly-themed horrors, from Australia. Indeed, the top-hatted shadow of Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” and the matrilineal mayhem of Natalia Erika James’ “Relic” — two other debuts by Aussie women that premiered in Sundance’s Midnight section — loom large here, as do other breakouts like “Hereditary,” “Goodnight Mommy” and even “The Orphanage.” Too large, possibly, for Reid’s film to fully escape a sense of diminished returns on its motherhood-is-madness, is-she-protecting-or-is-she-projecting and grief-is-a-ghost ideas.
Yet what it lacks in thematic newness, “Run Rabbit Run” makes up for in the sophistication of its moment-to-moment scarifying and its performances from Sarah Snook and outstanding newcomer Lily LaTorre, as mother and daughter respectively. Between them, Reid and screenwriter Hannah Kent conjure a fearful relationship made all the creepier because we’re never quite certain whether it’s fear of or fear for.
Snook plays Sarah, a fertility doctor grieving through the recent death of her beloved father, but maintaining a bravely cheerful face for her daughter Mia (LaTorre), who is turning seven. Sarah is no longer with Mia’s father Pete (Damon Herriman, not playing Charles Manson for a change), but on amicable terms with him and his new partner Denise (Naomi Rukavina). They are invited to Mia’s birthday party. Pointedly not invited is Sarah’s mother Joan (Greta Scacchi) who is languishing with dementia in a nursing home. The estrangement is not accidental: Sarah deliberately dodges the increasingly insistent calls from her mother’s caregivers, and unseen by Mia, pockets Joan’s birthday card to her granddaughter. Later that evening, sipping wine alone on the windy back porch, she burns it.
She has so successfully snipped Joan out of Mia’s life that it’s unsettling when Mia suddenly claims to “miss” the grandmother she’s never met. When Sarah protests that’s not possible, the girl sighs “I miss people I’ve never met all the time” with a world-weariness that relaxes, even amuses, Sarah: It’s just her precocious kid being her cute, weird self. But it’s less easy to dismiss the tantrums that follow during which Mia insists on being called Alice, the name of Sarah’s sister who went missing… at age seven. And it’s altogether impossible to get rid of the white rabbit that, much to Mia’s delight, shows up on the doorstep of their modernist Melbourne home. When Sarah tries to whoosh it out of its makeshift garden enclosure one night, the creature bites her, creating the most obviously festering of the film’s many unhealed wounds.
If Reid doesn’t invent many new horror scenarios, she is certainly assiduous in cramming in as much existing iconography as possible. There’s the crude rabbit mask that Mia insists on wearing. There are childhood photographs with scratched-out faces and a corrugated shed hung entirely with tetanus-rusty knives and clawlike tools. There are an improbable number of doors in the habit of swinging slowly open in the background and a lot of dreams where something unspeakable is just about to be revealed as the dreamer wakes with a gasping start. Oozing wounds, recurring bruises, sudden nosebleeds and inky black recesses in which something, or perhaps nothing at all, crouches — “Run Rabbit Run” has them all.
Many of these elements, along with the “Alice in Wonderland” allusions of the sister’s name and that pesky white rabbit, signify more than they actually deliver. But Bonnie Elliott’s sepulchral cinematography, especially in the “Top of the Lake”-style Australian Gothic landscapes of later on, makes each one a carefully designed exercise in camera placement, while Mark Bradshaw and Marcus Whale’s shreddingly uneasy, bass-laden score preys on your nerves even when you know you’re being hoodwinked.
But it’s primarily the performances that ensure “Run Rabbit Run,” which was acquired by Netflix prior to its Sundance bow, is more than a greatest-hits compilation of classic horror scares. Snook is playing so far against her Shiv-from-“Succession” type that it’s not until late on that we remember her great capacity for slyness. “I thought we’d agreed Mia would be an only child,” she tells Pete when he reveals he and Denise are trying for another. What seems at first like the jealousy of an ex-wife soon takes on eerier resonance — perhaps there’s another reason Mia shouldn’t have a sibling? — and Snook’s complex expressivity supports all the different readings. And if anything, she’s outmatched in ambivalence by the brilliantly self-possessed LaTorre, whose Mia is always both a supernaturally haunted child and a curious, clever little girl with an unerring instinct for truffling out her mother’s secrets through make-believe.
“You’re a good girl,” whispers Sarah to herself, arranging her Dad’s old sweater around her neck like an empty embrace. “You’re a terrible person!” Mia screams at her later, in a fit of either childish temper or spectral possession. In a surprisingly uncompromising finale which goes to places other motherhood horrors fear to tread, where the turn of the screw just won’t stop turning, “Run Rabbit Run” leaves little doubt which assessment is closer to the truth. After all the referencing of recent horror hits, Reid’s sleekly crafted potboiler finally obeys a much more ancient logic, that of a dark fairytale, the kind in which a devil’s pact made so long ago it’s almost been forgotten finally comes due, and the price, in blood and kinship, is steep.