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The Runner (2015)

America’s Next Top Model Citizen

Last night, I watched the twenty-second season opener of America’s Next Top Model. I hadn’t seen the show in five years (when I stopped watching reality TV on a regular basis), and was unprepared for the heightened levels of antagonistic shamelessness radiating from coddled, fame-hungry nobodies. The show immediately pulled me back into the bizarre world of The Runner, writer/director Austin Stark’s political drama about a disgraced Louisiana congressman.

Nicolas Cage stars as Colin Price, a glad-handing man of the people who makes headlines by standing up to BP following 2010’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Ironically, Price isn’t a stand-up guy when the cameras are off, carrying on an affair with a cheerleading coach (Ciera Payton) and icing out his high-powered attorney wife, Deborah (Connie Nielsen). His efforts to end offshore drilling screech to a halt when a video of one of his trysts goes viral.

There are three ways to view The Runner. The first is as a straightforward movie starring Left Behind-era Nicolas Cage, as opposed to Leaving Las Vegas-era Nicolas Cage. When taken at face value, this is not a well-put together film—some elements are downright sloppy. From Cage’s half-baked Southern accent (which stops in Brooklyn and Boston before landing in a New Orleans dinner theatre), to the gargantuan gaps in storytelling (immediately following the scandal, we skip right over the nine months in which Price started a pro-bono foundation for filing claims against BP), to the most laughable love-scene transition since Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (we cut from Price making eyes at his keys strategist, played by Sarah Paulson, to the two of them humping like rhinos in a moment so uncomfortable to watch I was glad it was out of focus)—Stark wears his First Time Feature Director badge on his sleeve. It’s an awesome wreck to behold.

The second lens, through which one might seriously consider this, thing involves some homework. Before heading out to the cinema, put on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. When you get home, watch Adaptation.* In the former film, Cage plays a corrupt New Orleans cop whose inability to connect with decent people sends him further into a spiral of drugs, sex, and madness. In the latter, Cage plays twin brothers who dream of making it big in show business--opposing sides of the same needy, dented coin. The Runner is like the second-hand meta version of both movies—a perfect middle piece to a wildly successful alternate-universe trilogy. It’s not a stretch to imagine officer Terence McDonagh running rampant in the same city as his bottled up alter ego, Colin Price. The key difference is that there are no decent people in Price’s New Orleans, at least not in the main cast. Everyone’s a user, a climber, an insatiable sex monster—or some combination of the three. Instead of badges, they hide in plain sight behind microphones and platitudes.

Which brings us to option three. The Runner may secretly be one of the darkest, most damning commentaries on political survival in recent years. Price doesn’t have any non-toxic relationships. Everyone he (and we) look to to save him from his destructive impulses turns out to be significantly damaged, too. Stark bleeds our patience dry, breaking away from all the tropes of a traditional broken-man narrative until we arrive at the only conclusion left available to us: We’re not meant to sympathize with Price. He is a truly pathetic creature gasping for air in a toxic ecosystem that rewards kindness with kicks to the groin, and in which self-interested compromise is the only rock-steady value. 

Two key elements sway The Runner towards this last theory. The first is the darkly beautiful line, which references (if I recall correctly) Price’s reservations over getting into bet with BP: “Only great men know how to make people’s powerlessness tolerable.” The second, related to the first, is a shot of New Orleans that, at first glance, is a gross, disposable instance of product placement. Sticking out like a sore thumb is a large Hyatt; sorer still is the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Yes, the makeshift disaster refuge of thousands of displaced, disenfranchised people has been named after a brand of luxury car that their collective wages couldn’t possibly match. It’s not until a few scenes later, when we see just what kind of man Colin Price is, that the image takes on real meaning. 

The possibility that options two and three are real almost precludes option one. Like the aforementioned Wiseau (who, for the record, is a horrendous filmmaker whose work I’m not really comparing to The Runner), Stark has unleashed a piece of art onto the world that audiences might chew on endlessly, drawing different conclusions not only from each other but also from subsequent viewings.

I don’t know that I share Stark’s opinion of politicians—or at least the opinion put forth in his film. But I don’t know that I don’t share it. He makes a compelling, modern-day version the Citizen Kane argument, that you can never really know a person. The made-up, well-spoken faces on TV may, in fact, hide some of the ugliest, insatiable-beyond-reason appetites on the planet. We’ll never know for sure, but that doesn’t stop us from trusting them implicitly with our livelihoods, our freedom, our future. At least the Top Model contestants have the decency to let us know they’re irredeemable freaks.

*If you can pull these films off your shelf instead of having to rent them, The Runner is definitely your cup of tea.