You expect one thing from a film that opens with a quote from Bruce Springsteen’s career-making 1975 anthem “Born to Run”: a road movie, one with escape and exploration on its mind, eventually bounding forward from the glum, gray town of its establishing shots. “Run,” the third feature from mood-mongering Scottish filmmaker Scott Graham, both delivers on that promise and deliberately kneecaps it: Charting 24 hours in the life of an angry, freedom-seeking factory worker and former boy racer, it’s a celebration of the open road that nonetheless hits the brakes at the city limits, engine idling with should-I-stay-or-should-I-go uncertainty. That’s the tension that powers “Run” through a bare-bones 76 minutes, as does a fine, tightly coiled performance from former “Game of Thrones” alum Mark Stanley — though the film, effective on its own unassuming terms, seems to cut out with some distance left to run.
After landing a BAFTA nomination in 2013 for his first feature “Shell,” an impressively poised miniature study in Highlands melancholy, Graham suffered a notable sophomore slump with his stilted, disjointed follow-up “Iona,” which received minimal distribution despite the rising star of leading lady Ruth Negga. Like “Shell,” “Run” has been adapted and expanded from one of Graham’s earlier shorts, and it finds him closer to the taut, textured form of his debut, notwithstanding the lean script’s odd lapse into cliché.
Some degree of familiarity, at least, is intended. As in the recent “Wild Rose,” the downbeat specificity of a working-class Scots milieu is used to refresh a story that is otherwise pure Americana, shot through with broken visions of an elusive great wide open. Springsteen, present everywhere from the soundtrack to the characters’ tattoos, is “Run’s” all-American totem.
The rain-washed desperation of Graham’s tarmac landscape comes from a personal place: The setting, the undistinguished port town of Fraserburgh, is where the director himself grew up, though if there’s any affection in his depiction of its squat fish factories and peeling leisure centers, it’s of a particularly stoic variety. Graham got out; 36-year-old Finnie (Stanley) thought he would too, and his younger years of breakneck street-racing along the docks were intended as mere dry runs for an eventual high-speed exit from Fraserburgh’s drab confines. Yet he’s still there, along with his teen-sweetheart-turned-wife Katie (Amy Manson) and their two restless, resentful sons, living out a meager life in a matchbox house. When Katie buys him a crisp “going-out” shirt as a gift, Finnie is brusquely befuddled: Where would they go out, anyway?
Meanwhile, their sullen eldest, Kid (Anders Hayward), is now reliving his father’s dead-end youth, gathering with friends at night to burn rubber down the same limited stretch of asphalt, and treating his pregnant girlfriend Kelly (the excellent Marli Siu) with gauche indifference. Finnie can see where it’s all leading, which is what reawakens his own urge to get the hell out of dodge; one evening, after a fractious family dinner, he impulsively grabs the keys to Kid’s car and heads out for a spin, picking up a bemused Kelly along the way.
The meat of the film is in this unlikely pairing of outgrown lad and the girl soon to bear his grandchild, who unexpectedly recognize their stunted hopes in each other. The crackle of understanding between them isn’t quite romantic, though it betrays what they’ve both been missing in their other, worn-out relationships. Stanley, who has the scarred, potent demeanor of a rugby-built Fassbender, and Siu — a rising talent who made off with every scene she had in last year’s oddball zombie musical “Anna and the Apocalypse” — play their characters’ mutual hunger with terse tenderness, as cinematographer Simon Tindall electrifies the dark car interior with reflected, oily neons. For a short, gasoline-fed spell, they feel like the only people in the world.
That they don’t know what to do with this fleeting bond is poignant, though eventually “Run” seems likewise uncertain of its direction. A somewhat rushed finale brings new perspective and possibilities in the clear light of day, though the film’s short timeframe leads one to wonder if Finnie’s nighttime explosion of angst is simply cyclical — call it road rage of a more interior sort — and doomed to repetition. There’s a reason British cinema doesn’t share Hollywood’s rich road-movie tradition: It only takes a few hours’ driving before you’ve reached the other end of the island. If “Run,” with its big American dreams and small Scottish scope, is finally frustrated by those limitations, that is at least partly the point.