In director Austin Stark’s The Runner, Colin Price (Nicolas Cage) embodies that central ideal both literally and figuratively. Not only does he enjoy jogging as a sport, but his fierce, no-nonsense approach towards the disastrous British Petroleum oil spill off the Louisiana coast in 2010 builds political clout with his constituents and propels him for higher office.
But, absolute purity within a politician is inherently impossible, and Price manages to destroy both the professional and the personal via some risible choices, negating both sides of his runner personality. Sadly, besides that somewhat creative play on words, The Runner boasts little imagination or narrative force. It doesn’t help matters that Cage seems completely lifeless, unable to breathe any energy into an already static script of public humiliation and ultimate redemption.
Well liked and born from good stock of a Louisiana political family (with Peter Fonda appearing in a few scenes as his brash, stubborn alcoholic father), we first meet Price as his strong words and actions bring universal support for his coastal hometown in the aftermath of the oil spill. Pegged for the governor’s race and sharply supported by wife Deborah (Connie Nielsen), it’s not long before the entire thing comes crashing down upon him when his affair with a local cheerleader coach (Dana Gourrier) surfaces and his political career is destroyed.
After bouts of self-pity, alcoholism and the common ‘ism’ known affectionately as ‘rock bottomism’ Price tries to pull himself back together, reconnecting with old friend Kate (Sarah Paulson) and searching for the roots that won him popularity in the not too distant past.
Any time a film places itself in the political world with a righteous-minded individual at the helm, I think back to Michael Ritchie’s 1972 masterpiece The Candidate and how wonderfully it elicited all the right emotions, intellect and political hubris. This is unfair, I know. Different era, different liberal agenda and certainly a different framework of Hollywood product, but it’s inevitable that my mind goes there in comparison. Nicolas Cage’s Colin Price is basically a good soul like Robert Redford’s Bill McKay, trying to make subtle changes in a maelstrom of bureaucratic nonchalance and backhanded lobbying. It’s never overtly stated, but the shadowy reasons of the law firm henchman (Bryan Batt) and his wife who urge Price to run have more than his good intentions at heart. Certainly, Price’s extramarital affair is bad, but writer-director Stark lobbies for the idea that political skulduggery is a worse sin.
Yet, having said all that in halcyon fondness for similar films, The Runner never approaches any of that grandeur or takes any chances, aspiring to be nothing more than a mid-level character study with Nicolas Cage as its main draw that feels like it were made for television.
Likewise, the coastal community of Louisiana where the film is set- so vital, mysterious and enchanting on screen- is barely exploited besides a few rambling shots in the French Quarter and a backyard craw-fish fry that could have been filmed in Southern California.
There’s a good film embedded somewhere in The Runner, perhaps in the relationship between Cage and Fonda who share several good scenes together as son scarred by a domineering father. These scenes resonate and Cage comes to life a bit, but they’re too few and far between. If anything, his reactions to his father cement Price as a flawed individual, trying to live up to a non-existent ideal held by others. With that knowledge, it’s more than likely he’d end up staring at the walls like Redford’s McKay asking “what now?” if and when he actually did reclaim the throne.
The films opens on Friday, August 7 at AMC Grapevine Mills 30.