‘The Runner’: Film Review

Patti Perret
Promising material that would have benefited from more experienced handling.

Austin Stark’s directorial debut stars Nicolas Cage as a tainted Louisiana politician seeking redemption.

Anyone still anticipating a Nic Cage career comeback will be forced to wait even longer following The Runner, a middling Southern political drama that can’t manage to match, or even adequately contextualize, the real human tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that forms the film’s backdrop. Unlikely to raise much interest in theatrical release, Cage’s latest excuse to pick up a paycheck can at least fall back on VOD surfers in an attempt make up the difference.

Cage plays Colin Pryce, a Louisiana congressman representing the second district, which includes New Orleans and portions of the Gulf Coast. With the April 2010 blowout of British Petroleum’s oil rig, Pryce achieves national recognition with his impassioned televised pleas for federal assistance to protect the vulnerable coastal ecosystem and support struggling local businesses. His sudden notoriety plays right into the ambitions of his icy, power-hungry wife Deborah (Connie Nielsen), an attorney seeking oil industry support for Pryce to initiate a run for the U.S. Senate.

Her plans begin unraveling, however, when Pryce states a newfound zero-tolerance for expanding oil production and then collapse completely with the anonymous public release of closed-circuit TV footage revealing Pryce romancing a very attractive, very married cheerleading coach. The ensuing media firestorm presents the prospect of complete career meltdown for Pryce, who inevitably returns to the bottle after nearly two decades of sobriety.

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This is not to be a personal crisis of Leaving Las Vegas proportions, however, as his longtime public relations consultant Kate (Sarah Paulson), recently separated from her husband, helps pull Pryce back from the brink of disaster. Her strategic guidance offers an opportunity for him to cleanse his personal history and political legacy, but he doesn’t get much support from his father Rayne (Peter Fonda), a former New Orleans mayor who’s full of caustically calculated advice, even after the collapse of his own political career and willingly succumbing to alcoholism himself.

Unevenly repurposing his producing background on indie films like Infinitely Polar Bear and Hello I Must Be Going, Stark practically spurns the embarrassment of riches to be found in the recent history of New Orleans. A decade after Hurricane Katrina and five years following the BP oil spill disaster, his screenplay fails to elucidate the national and regional political failings that have contributed to New Orleans’ ongoing crises, relying instead on stock situations and familiar plot devices that could clearly be improved upon with some creative scripting.

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Of course, it’s no coincidence that Cage plays a politician named Pryce, since the entire plot involves establishing acceptable terms for his professional advancement. But Cage doesn’t show much enthusiasm for the role and his frequent air of enervation is often more distracting than his lame Louisiana drawl. Stark repeatedly squanders the decent supporting cast, revealing scant backstory that would enhance the often vague character motivation on display.

His serviceable directing neglects opportunities to incorporate any number of evocative Katrina- or BP-impacted locations that might have helped underline the film’s theme of political capitulation, a perspective ultimately conveyed by the simplistic and supremely cynical conclusion.

Production companies: Paper Street Films, Back Lot Pictures
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Paulson, Connie Nielsen, Peter Fonda, Wendell Pierce, Bryan Batt
Director-writer:  Austin Stark
Producers: Bingo Gubelmann, Benji Kohn, Glenn Willaimson, Erika Hampson, Chris Papavasiliou
Executive producers: Ruth Mutch, Sam Bisbee, Noah Millman, Tom Conigliaro, Galt Niederhoffer, Todd Cohen
Director of photography:  Elliot Davis
Production designer: Michael Grasley
Costume designer: Amela Baksic
Editors: Michael R. Miller, Lee Percy
Music: The Newton Brothers
Casting: Suzanne Smith Crowley, Jessica Kelly, Meagan Lewis

Rated R, 90 minutes