In the opening scenes of THE RUNNER the oil slick from the 2010 BP spill is seen spreading over the gulf coast, over the wild life, crippling the fishermen, the local culture, and the economy; by the end of the film, the contamination will have infiltrated the landscape, political and personal, of the man at the center of the fight: a New Orleans politician–Democratic Representative Colin Pryce played by Oscar winner Nicolas Cage.
In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Pryce breaks down at a congressional hearing as he speaks of the damage done to his hometown, and voices the outrage and moral certitude of a lone voice demanding justice from the giant corporation responsible. It’s a speech we long to hear politicians give, where they lose the script and speak eloquently from the heart on the correct side of an issue of conscience.
It’s a powerful scene and Cage goes all out, bringing his considerable dramatic gifts to the moment. The camera moves in on all the anger and hurt he is channeling for the voiceless constituency he represents. I’m thinking to myself– WHERE has this Nicolas Cage been? The scene ignites a media surge and suddenly Pryce’s career is electrified by the possibility of a run for the senate. Just as suddenly we understand this politician has some major baggage to unload: womanizing, a drinking problem.
These are, unfortunately, garden variety complications in many powerful men’s lives, and they are developed here in predictable ways. What is surprising is the stellar cast and their compelling performances: the amazonian Connie Nielsen as Pryce’s chilly, ambitious wife; Sarah Paulson as Pryce’s straightforward media handler who has a soft spot for the representative; Bryan Batt (remember him fondly from MAD MEN) the oily corporate clone who offers to grease the wheels of Pryce’s burgeoning political career; and the crusty Peter Fonda in a deeply moving performance as Pryce’s father, the former mayor and career politician whose drinking corroded both his liver and his character.
The film lacks a kind of finesse in developing these characters and the issues raised. Scenes are familiarly framed and sequenced. The woman (Ciera Payton is affecting in an intense bedroom scene) with whom Pryce is initially seen to be having an affair, disappears from the film. Connie Nielsen needed a few more scenes so we could understand more clearly how she really feels about her husband and what’s really going on in that marriage.
But what ultimately surprised me about the movie, despite its dramatic flatness, was how disquieting the ending was. The final shot of smokestacks on the horizon spewing dark clouds into a blue sky made me think of the election season dawning and who is running. THE RUNNER bluntly presents the issues, a timely portrait in compromise no less disturbing for its predictability.