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American indie about young woman in rural America grappling with her father's death is so deeply sombre and austere that it left me feeling lifeless and cold - live from San Sebastian

QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM SAN SEBASTIAN

Haas (Hannah Schiller) is an 18-year-old living with her single, eccentric and socially inept father Alvin (Jonathan Eisley) somewhere along the Mississipi River, in rural Missouri. They inhabit a very large and gloomy mansion falling into disrepair, and in almost complete isolation. An old telephone and a few sparse neighbours are their only connection to the outside world. The landscape is almost entirely barren and soulless, much like the lives of the our two lead characters. The story takes place some time in the early 20th century.

One day Alvin suddenly dies, leaving his daughter to grapple with his funeral (he wants to be buried in his native Illinois) and his mounting debts. Despite the threat of imminent eviction, the young woman travels north for the funeral, in accordance to the wishes of her father. This where she meets a young man. Similarly to Haas’s father, the male is shy and lonely. The two misfits bond through their discomfort, communicating through timid eye contacts and prolonged moments of awkward silence. A relationship blossoms. Is this just an amicable complicity or a more profound romance? These precarious lives are painted without extra colours and flavours. The outcome is grey and sorrowful, yet quietly moving.

Marian Mathias’s feature debut is an exquisite exploration of tenderness and dejection. It feels like one of those gloomy days when you struggle to open your eyes and get out of bed. Perhaps not coincidentally, the film begins with its protagonist waking up alone, a sequence repeated at the end of the story.

Runner is a film doused in darkness. A church hymn is sung, almost as if begging the protagonists and the cinematographer: “No more darkness, no more nights, I saw the light”. Faces are hardly visible: a strict Brechtian distance observed throughout. The photography is so incredibly gloomy that it is often hardly discernible, even on a large cinema screen. At such moments,. the director pays a lot of attention to the sound design. Panting and rustling sounds echo throughout the movie theatre. You can feel the subwoofer vibrating under your feet. The problem is that most people in the audience failed to realise these subtleties and instead presumed that the image was defective. Viewers clapped, whistled and someone even shouted a loud “la pantalla” (Spanish for “the screen”) in the first five minutes of the film, wanting to draw the attention of the projectionist. I doubt that the director expected this type of audience reaction.

In defence of the unsuspecting viewers, Runner is a very difficult view, even at a taut 76 minutes.The aspect ratio of the film is also very unusual, with an almost square frame. I can imagine it is borderline unwatchable at the far less immersive home experience (unless you have a fully functioning 5.1 home cinema set up). The plot is so thin that it could be almost described as a sensory experience. Eric Rohmer on benzodiazepines. The images are sad and lonely, much like an Edward hopper painting (incidentally, both the early 20th century American artists and the the filmmaker/ writer Marian Mathias are from the same city: New York). The story takes place in the winter, and indeed it left me feeling cold.

Runner just premiered at the 70th San Sebastian International Film Festival.


By Victor Fraga - 17-09-2022

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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