The Fast Runner

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Most movies
are content with simply telling a story. Others go deeper, taking us places
we’ve never been, showing us people we’ve never met, even suggesting
where the medium might be headed. The Fast Runner–an epic film by
director Zacharias Kunuk and screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, based on an Inuit
legend–goes deeper and reaches higher than any film in release right now.
It combines the anthropological poetry of Robert Flaherty’s documentaries
(particularly Nanook of the North), the diamond-hard mysticism of Werner
Herzog’s culture-clash parables and the cosmic, almost abstract expansiveness
of films like 2001 and Days of Heaven. It’s not as great
or perfect as any of the films I’ve listed; in fact, it has a number of
structural flaws, and its unsentimental hardness, documentary roughness and
dreamlike density will likely drive some viewers away. But scene for scene,
it rivets your attention in the Herzog/Kubrick/Terrence Malick tradition,
by immersing you in a universe rarely explored by commercial cinema, and asking
you to contemplate every detail from the ground up: the soil, the grass, the
rocks, the wind, the sea; the hills, the sky, the stars.

Shot by
cinematographer Norman Cohn on vibrant yet grainy Digi-Beta widescreen video–an
operatic verite look that connects it to Herzog–The Fast Runner
achieves a feel that’s at once intimate and gigantic. Cohn alternates tight
closeups with panoramic long shots that reduce characters to specks on the horizon.
The editing mixes slow, meditative, nearly silent passages and ragged, furious
action sequences scored with simple, hard percussion and deep pulses from a
didgeridoo. (The director has watched a few John Ford movies in his time; parts
of the picture have the stark beauty of a black-and-white western from the 40s.)
The result is a sense of immediacy so complete that it can make you feel a bit

The Fast
starts with a protracted and somewhat opaque prologue introducing
the people of Igloolik, an Inuit tribe near the Arctic Circle that has been
laboring under a curse. With its bleak, mostly wordless exteriors and cramped,
firelit interiors, this intro initially seems like mere throat-clearing or scene-setting.
And yet, like the Dawn of Man prologue in 2001, the sequence ultimately
reveals itself as the mythic foundation for everything that follows; it gives
the audience (and the next generation of characters) a starting point and a
set of historical references, and introduces certain recurring social patterns
that must be broken in the name of progress.

In childhood
the main character, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), is earmarked as a gifted athlete
who can run faster and farther than anyone in the tribe. As an adult, he falls
in love with a beautiful woman named Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu, whose haggard intensity
suggests Pernilla August). Unfortunately, Atuat has been promised to marry the
hero’s cousin, Oki, the hothead son of the tribe’s leader. In a challenge
fight so awkwardly nasty it’s comical, the hero wins the right to marry
Atuat, and Oki goes berserk. Yet his emotional implosion and subsequent smoldering
resentment of the hero are not presented in modern psychological terms, but
as components of the film’s central myth–as the logical result of
the tribe’s longstanding curse. (The curse guarantees that the tribespeople
will give in to their basest, most selfish impulses instead of acting for the
good of the community.)

What follows
is an escalating series of strikes and counterstrikes pitting the two men against
each other, the young ones against the elders, the women against other women
and the tribe against itself. Besides the central mano-a-mano, there’s
a secondary plotline involving a young woman named Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), a
cute but lazy seductress whose sense of entitlement causes unnecessary work
for anyone who’s not sleeping with her. A couple of the violent sequences
are so surprising and brutal that I’d rather not describe them in detail.
Suffice to say that if you never gave much thought to how a wooden spear tip
might sound as it plunges through an animal-skin tent, The Fast Runner will
show you.

The film’s
climactic foot chase attains a truly dreamlike power. I don’t mean simply
that it’s conventionally surreal in that Sons-of-David-Lynch, two-midgets-and-a-giant
way; I mean it truly does feel like something from a dream–specifically,
a nightmare of vulnerability and sheer willpower that keeps going and going,
getting more desperate by the second.

The film’s
connective tissue–its laid-back reconstruction of Inuit life hundreds of
years ago–is equally fascinating, not just for its details (the stripping
of meat from animal skin, the creation of shoes and clothes, the rituals of
sex in a cold climate) but for its loose, documentary-like style. Kanuk and
Cohn seemed to have embraced spontaneity, perhaps even gone looking for accidents.
A furious confrontation over an act of infidelity in a tent moves from a long
shot of huddled adult bodies to a closeup of a crying toddler, and stays with
the tears until they go away. (It doesn’t take long.) Random conversations
are interrupted by distant birdsongs or challenged by sudden gusts of wind.
Piercing closeups of weathered faces go suddenly dark when a cloud passes overhead.
Men chasing each other with spears fall down in the snow, then get back up and
keep going. (This harsh, beautiful movie is the strongest argument yet in favor
of the idea that video is freeing up a new generation of storytellers. The
very notion of shooting this kind of movie on film, for several months on location
and on a tiny budget, will seem inconceivable to anyone who actually knows
what it takes to make a feature.)

Is The
Fast Runner
too long? At 172 minutes, almost certainly. Is it too mysterious,
even vague, for its own good? In places, yes. Does it sometimes deliberately
cloak its narrative lapses beneath the mantle of cultural difference? It appears
so. But in the end, when you compare what the film achieves to what it does
not achieve, the lapses don’t much matter. This is the first full-length
fiction feature produced by a predominantly Inuit production company; except
for Cohn, a New York-born videographer and cameraman, every principal actor
and crewmember is Inuit, including the screenwriter, an expert in his tribe’s
oral tradition who died in 1998. The 45-year-old director comes from the last
generation of Inuit to have been raised in sod huts and igloos on ice floes.

the entire film carries the weight of a Definitive Statement (with that burden,
alas, comes both heft and length). When you consider what the film was up against
in purely commercial terms, its achievements seem all the more impressive. A
film like The Fast Runner only gets one shot, and if the result doesn’t
work–if it’s anything less than amazing, and if it fails commercially–we’ll
never see another. This one deserves to be seen; even if there had been 10 other
movies on similar subject matter, it would still deserve to be seen.

The film
makes you aware of how hard life could be prior to the 20th century–indeed,
how hard life can be if you’re not a citizen of an industrialized nation
with a comfortable middle class. Yet the characters don’t acknowledge the
hardness of this life, because it’s the only life they know. The sight
of tiny figures staggering across the tundra trying to kill one another, or
tracking animals through snowbanks and across ice floes, might strike most viewers
as impossibly alien, and the absence of exposition won’t exactly roll out
the welcome mat for mass audiences. The Fast Runner pretty much exemplifies
the word "uncommercial." Yet I still suspect it will find an audience–now
or later. Great movies often do.