THE RUNNER (2015)
Director: Austin Stark
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Connie Nielsen, Sarah Paulson, Peter Fonda, Wendell Pierce, Bryan Batt
MPAA Rating: (for language and some sexual material)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 8/7/15 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 6, 2015
The story of fictional U.S. Congressman Colin Price (Nicolas Cage), who comes to prominence and arrives at disgrace against the backdrop of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, is one of "could've"s. The man could've been one of those rare politicians whose actions match his words. He could've stood for something that matters. He could've been a man of principle and integrity. He could've been happy in his personal life. He could've made a difference. Instead, well, you can guess the sad story of The Runner if you've ever had your optimism about a politician shattered by the reality of politics, which probably means that everyone reading this can figure out the punch line.
The movie, by writer/director Austin Stark (his first feature in both roles), is a product of the modern political landscape, where special interests pass money around willy-nilly in the hopes of garnering future favors from people in power or funnel money more specifically to a politician's campaign to keep them in line. It's also a reflection of our general skepticism toward anything that has to do with politics, mainly because of the influence of money on the people who could be most influential in determining how society operates.
Stark doesn't have anything new or revelatory to say about the state of things as they are, although we might admire that he is willing to take a story that could've been (There it is again) one of an inspiring political underdog to its logical, cynical end. We also might just wonder why this specific, fictitious story needs to be told when watching/reading the news or browsing campaign finance reports through the Federal Election Commission would offer similar but more pertinent results. I suppose the difference is whether you prefer your skepticism to be hypothetical or confirmed.
This isn't to say the movie is a broad, angry diatribe against the System, although it might have benefited from a little more of an emotional outlook on the way of things beyond its shoulder-shrugging attitude, which seems to sigh, "Well, this is the way things are." Through Price, Stark offers a theoretical example of how an idealistic politician with good intentions in his mind and heart could find himself in a situation in which corruption of those ideals might be necessary for personal and professional survival.
During a House committee meeting, Price gives an impassioned speech about the impact of the oil spill on his constituents on the Louisiana coast, choking up as he speaks of fishers who are in danger of losing their businesses and jobs. He's genuine in his beliefs, and the speech becomes a national phenomenon.
His chief of staff (Wendell Pierce) thinks Price should take advantage of the attention to further his political goals, but the congressman wants to use the national platform as leverage to benefit the people of his district. His conniving, opportunistic wife Deborah (Connie Nielsen) gets him a meeting with a high-profile financier and lobbyist (Bryan Batt), but Price rejects any political relationship with the man on account of his ties to the oil industry.
Everything collapses when Price's sexual relationship with the wife of a local fisherman comes to light. He resigns and, in between the hazy moments of excessive drinking and visits with prostitutes, hopes that he might be able to mount a comeback in the near future.
This is something of a character study of a troubled, imperfect man. He's a drinker, like his father Rayne (Peter Fonda) before him. Father and son share a lot in common, and the scenes between the two men—when they aren't arguing about Price's career—are some of the most effective in the movie. Both men are politicians, and both of their careers involved scandals. Rayne is content that his legacy is his tenure as a local mayor and that everyone seems to have forgotten those other elections during which his alcoholism led to a string of unfortunate "incidents." There's a lesson in humility there, but Price is too determined in his belief that his career isn't finished yet to hear it.
Cage is restrained but earnest in his performance here. His Price is dogged but still holds the weight of defeat on his shoulders. That kind of internal conflict is more than enough carry this story, as Price starts a non-profit organization to represent the local fishers seeking reimbursement for their losses as a result of the oil spill. He insists that their interests are his first priority, but he also tells Kate (Sarah Paulson), his political advisor, that he misses the old job. He becomes romantically involved with her, as each of their marriages is on the rocks. His father's medical condition is worsening. The powers that be are starting to notice that his reputation is improving.
These and other developments outside of Price become the means of his personal improvement. It feels slightly artificial, although that's only a hint of how contrived the ultimate function of these external forces turns out to be (Think of a row of dominoes). The Runner desperately wants to get to that final twist of the knife, so much so that it feels more like the machinations of a screenplay than of any sort of political machine.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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