“At this point, it’s all about surviving.”
Even by recent Nicolas Cage standards, The Runner is a fairy lousy piece of work. Shapeless, deathly dull, constantly unfocused and littered with technical errors — from misappropriated sound editing to uneven lighting between shots — it’s painful shoddily drama and sloppy storytelling, lacking any substance or nuance at any moment, let alone the sophistication needed to make this bureaucratic heavyweight holster the narrative heft fundamental towards sustaining even a passing interest in this dour, downbeat downer. If it had any intentions to run, it’s energy dissipated within its warm-up jog ahead of the gate.
It’s never especially clear where The Runner wants its narrative to go or what it wants people to take away from its woeful tale. Obvious and overbearingly direct dialogue throughout the beginning heavily suggest this is a politics-based mission-message film centered on a morally righteous Congressman Colin Price (Cage), a New Orleans politician for the people, determined to do right after 2010’s BP oil spill drives local blue-collar people in further economic turmoil. With plans to start a Senate campaign in motion, his professional and personal lives are shattered when an affair with a local fisherman’s wife, Lucy Hall (Ciera Payton), turns into a media hailstorm and forces him to resign from his position of power. From here, as we follow Colin’s renewed drinking habit veined from a troubled history to the sauce prominently swarming inside his former politician father Rayne’s (Peter Fonda) failing physical system, it looks as though we’ve driven into a darker character-focused drama etched from the seedy underbelly of corrupt politics. It’s material tampered already of late with House of Cards or The Ides of March, but fertile material for captivating character work nevertheless. Of course, this doesn’t materialize well either.
For unlike the film around him, Colin’s not a quitter. He picks himself up and continues fighting the good fight for the people, with a blooming relationship with consultant Kate Haber (Sarah Paulson) keeping his good spirits in check. So now apparently meant to become a more muted-than-average redemption story, we explore the morality of man through not-entirely-recent headlines and other quandaries, potentially meant to learn how to become better people within our community. But then more corruption and scandals get in the way of our protagonist’s lofty ambitions, dissipating the suggested integrity the film began to set into motion for silly melodrama once Colin’s desire for good becomes a harder mission and his outlook on life becomes more discouraged. In the midst of all this weaving through different trenches of dramatic territory, it’s almost as if the film chooses to muddle its way through a sluggish, ideas-starved character study unsure whether or not to masquerade within the political thriller genre. Its sterile presentation and shifting motivation plague this with enough problems to overcome, and this is before getting to the heart of why this feature fails to spark.
Gloomy when it comes to its overall presentation and only bleaker once its final act comes into play, The Runner marks the feature screenwriting and directing debut of producer Austin Stark and his inexperience is constantly on display. His insecurities with the narrative befuddle the message from making an impact, and his direction enunciates on his inability to dictate drama or pose. His self-serious approach, layered on top of his unstable failure to drive home any political or narrative impact, evaporates the tension or suspense of every sequence. Though he understands the importance of firm character development, he never appears certain how to make this happen or where he should take the flat characters he’s introduced.
It’s a film as muddy and swampy as the Louisiana backdrop behind it, and despite Cage’s earnest heart inside the role, he can’t convey the layers and troubles plagued inside his lead character. Between his fluctuating accent, stiff presence and overwrought storyline supporting him, Cage looks as frustrated and confused with his character as we become watching him wipe-out on screen yet again. His monotone, boringly disoriented performance is less than a shadow of what he did so well during his last New Orleans stay in Bad Lieutenant. Has any actor been more dependent upon their director than this Academy Award winner? Fonda, likewise, is completely wasted in his supporting role, giving his character whatever dramatic heft he can but constantly left on the sidelines beyond one-or-two fine moments with Cage. Paulson is affecting when given the chance to be so too at times, but so often is she left to appear as just the plot-driven lover and supporter of Colin. Bryan Batt and Wendall Pierce deliver some savory moments, but are all-to-limited by their one-note roles, and given just as little to work with but fairing far, far worse is Connie Nielsen as Colin’s shortsighted wife, Deborah.
Working under lower production values than per usual — even compared to last year’s Left Behind — Cage clearly wants to make the best of The Runner. He sees something more impactful and meaningful with the product, and moments near the beginning and end hint as a finer, more deliberately low-key performance never brought to life under Stark’s direction. It’s disappointing, though less for how uninteresting the delivery becomes but more for how much thespian potential could be portrayed through letting Cage work under a somber, sullen cynosure again like he did with Joe just a couple years ago. It’s a splashy drama holding no water, and the kind of well-meaning clunker outdated and overstated before even coming out the woodwork.