Top Ten On the Run Stories
The road tale is one of the oldest genres of stories there are, going at least as far back as The Odyssey. But there’s a subset that we might as well call the On the Run story, featuring outlaws not just on a journey but running for their lives, that created some of the most striking art of the last fifty years. Here are some of the best:
- The Getaway by Jim Thompson (1958)
Jim Thompson was the best crime writer of the first half of the 20th century (hush, this is my list), and the dark and twisted road novel The Getaway is one of his best. These stories of life on the run are all about the relationship between the people doing the running, and the complex relationship between crook Doc McCoy and his just-as-crooked wife Carol is one of the richest relationships of the genre. And the ending in Mexico, the impossible Kingdom of El Rey, proves that you can never truly run away from anything.
- Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike (Manga, 1970-76)
This fantastic Samurai manga from Kazuo Koike ran from 1970 to 1976, and created the subgenre of “outlaw and child” which will be featured heavily in the list below. In the comics, hero Ogami Itto was the shogun’s executioner before he is marked for death, and instead of honorably killing himself and his young son, he chooses to walk the Path of Death, taking his son with him in a baby cart filled with weapons. It’s a dark, bloody tale, and a true original. I acknowledge my novel’s She Rides Shotgun’s debt to these comics by naming the second part of the novel “… and Cub.”
- “Bonnie and Clyde,” Serge Gainsbourgh and Bridgette Bardot –
I could have gone the easy route and namechecked the seminal Arthur Penn movie that came out the year before this song, but I’ve listened to this song a lot more than I’ve seen the movie, and besides, the movie’s great but it’s not half as sexy as this song. It features cascading guitars, monkey calls, and the languorous French back and forth of Gainsbourgh and Bardot. The story they tell is familiar, one of two gun-crossed lovers on the run who wind up choosing death over being separated. But the story has never sounded as good as it does on this track.
- Paper Moon (film, 1973)
A con man father and a pickle-faced, precocious girl (played by real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neil) travel the Depression-era Midwest as he teaches her how to run scams and she teaches him that maybe he’s not the heartless criminal he thinks he is. An almost flawless movie. Besides the two heroes, the best role is Madeleine Kahn as a floozy who takes up with the pair. I’ve called She Rides Shotgun “Paper Moon with a body count,” such is it’s influence on me.
- Badlands (film, 1973)
Based on the real-life killer couple of Charles Starkweather and Carol Ann Fugate, Badlands was Terrence Malick’s first and best film. Told without romance or inflection, Badlands shows how a couple of teenagers in the Midwest can drift into love and just as easily drift into killing. Special mention to “Nebraska,” the excellent Springsteen song told from Starkweather’s point of view.
- Wild at Heart (film, 1990)
Based on the novel by Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart is maybe David Lynch’s most shocking film, a mélange of sex and violence and Wizard of Oz references that just barely holds together as a narrative. But oh what a narrative it is, as Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern cross the south in a convertible (another staple of this genre), dodging detectives and falling in with one-man-bad-crowd Bobby Peru (a film-stealing, filthy Willem Dafoe before the ludicrously violent finale.
- True Romance (film, 1993)
It would be cheating to put more than one Tarantino movie on the list, so as much as I love the thrill-kill insanity (and gorgeous soundtrack) of Natural Born Killers, I’m going to have to give the nod to True Romance. For one thing, it might have the best cast of the 90s. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette shine as the leads, lovers on the run with a suitcase full of stolen guns, but every role in this film is stocked with talent. From the amazing back and forth between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken to dreadlocked drug dealer Gary Oldman to a scene featuring then-unknowns Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini, every scene features virtuoso performances.
- Thelma and Louise (film, 1991)
This road novel turned feminist manifesto got caught up in a dumb political firestorm thanks to people who didn’t want to let female protagonists enjoy the same sex and violence we’ve been letting men get away with forever. Thanks to brauva performances by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis (and a career making turn by Brad Pitt as a sexy outlaw), there’s never a moment we’re not rooting for the pair, even after they go on a crime spree while staying ahead of the law. The ending was also controversial, although I can’t imagine it going any other way.
- Angel Baby by Richard Parker (novel, 2013)
Richard Lange burns up the pages with this one, the story of Luz, the wife of a Mexican drug lord who decides to escape his clutches and get to California with her daughter. The very first paragraph starts at a run and never slows down for the length of the book, as Luz meets the underworld of the border and, as is often the case in this genre, she learns there are some things you can’t run from. An underrated gem of a book.
- “Walk Around” by Ghostface Killah (2007, hyperlink)
Ghostface Killah, of the Wu-Tang Clan, is one of the best crime fiction writers working today. Nobody notices because he writes his stories to a beat. “Walk Around,” from his album The Big Doe Rehab, tells the story of a man who has just committed a murder in a New York bodega. He flashes back to details of the crime as his friends take him down the BQE, eventually heading towards Venice Beach as he plans his comeback even though wanted from the law. By using novelistic details in the song, Ghostface gives a human face to a very violent tale.