Nicolas Cage has spent much of his post-stardom exile in Louisiana, where it sometimes seems as if he’ll appear in any movie willing to redeem the state’s tax credits and set up camp within a 10-minute drive of whatever haunted mansions Cage may or may not still own in New Orleans. Yet the implied promise of Cage giving rococo nutbar performances down in or around the ol’ bayou has, apart from Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, gone unfulfilled, with New Orleans often serving as an uninspired backdrop for generic and barely released thrillers like Seeking Justice. The Runner, then, deserves some credit for actually sinking into its surroundings, making New Orleans a central story element. Cage even adopts a Louisiana drawl to play Congressman Colin Price, a small-time politician making a name for himself by demanding accountability from BP following its real-life oil spill in 2010—and dealing with the professional fallout from his extramarital philandering. There’s no revenge, no murder, and no kidnapping. It’s a low-budget New Orleans Cage movie with some dignity.
It would be a pleasure to report that The Runner is also good, but this slim if mildly compelling film lands somewhere between character sketch and morality tale. Using the kind of mournful score that usually accompanies opening montages in social-issue documentaries, writer-director Austin Stark weaves the BP oil spill into his narrative with ambition, but not a lot of insight into either the real-life issue at hand or his central character. Price is ready to take on BP, fight for his constituents, and call for a ban on oil-drilling, but his career gets torpedoed when one of his affairs becomes public. Curiously, this isn’t the story of a career politician who rises to the challenge of standing up to the oil lobby, or even the story of an idealist locked into battle with a corporation. It’s the less plot-driven story of Price struggling with how to move forward after his failings ding his reputation.
The intimacy of this situation is appealing, and conveyed with plenty of handheld camera work that gets in close to Cage’s earnest, committed performance. But the movie rarely varies from a tone of dogged glumness, apart from the mildest possible moments of levity between Price and his freelance advisor Kate (Sarah Paulson). Even Price’s infidelities are painted as pained and unfortunate rather than lusty, with his wife Deborah (Connie Nielsen) going through the ambitious-political-spouse motions of feeling more hurt by the damage to their careers than their relationship. The script also gives Price an ex-mayor father (Peter Fonda) who lost several elections for higher office before committing himself to a life of booze and cigarettes, and makes it clear that Price has attempted to curb his own alcoholism, only to swerve into compulsive sex instead. This all makes sense on paper, but by sticking so hard to Price’s idealism, with even his indulgences remaining dour, the movie denies its audience the pleasure of seeing Cage sleaze it up. Imagine his character from Snake Eyes glad-handing and showboating his way through speeches and fundraisers.
That’s not the movie that Stark and Cage decided to make, and while it’s hard to fault them for taking the movie they’ve made instead seriously, The Runner doesn’t make itself easy to enjoy on its own terms, either. The dialogue alternates high-minded stand-taking with exposition dumps; there are no histories, backstories, or motivations that Stark can’t work into awkward out-loud exchanges between characters. Yet the movie’s simplicity does allow for smaller moments where Cage’s stricken, conflicted face becomes more articulate than the talky script (not least in the movie’s quiet final shot). If Cage continues to work in the margins of the movie industry with an eye on quantity more than quality, projects like The Runner at least offer a less embarrassing way of biding his time.