Thursday, March 30, 2023

‘Runner’ Review: A Punchy, Panic-Attack Drama About a Different Kind of Love on the Run

With a busted lip and a bursting heart, an arm gone weirdly numb and pounding feet punishing a pair of pink Nikes throughout, Marija, as played by breakout Žygimantė Elena Jakštaitė, bears “Runner” aloft from frantic start to fraught finish like an Olympic torch.

An 87-minute-long anxiety attack masquerading as a movie — but in a good way — Lithuanian filmmaker Andrius Blaževičius’ sophomore feature is a kinetic portrayal of an extraordinary young woman paradoxically trapped at a psychological impasse. For all its adrenalized, blood-rush rhythms, the contrast makes “Runner” remarkably humane, as the nature of Marija’s mission yields unexpectedly trenchant insights into the sacrifices that carers will make for the ones in their care. Many pounding thrillers are about men and women running for their lives; few are about running — careening, hurtling to the brink of breakdown — for someone else’s.

The torch-carrying metaphor is appropriate: Marija is devoted to her troubled boyfriend Vytas (Marius Repsys), a brilliant PhD candidate at the university Marija also attends, who has previously been hospitalized for bipolar disorder. Earlier this particular morning, Vytas, experiencing some kind of violent psychotic episode which tacitly accounts for Marija’s split lip, went dangerously AWOL. Marija will spend the rest of the day pinballing back and forth across the city, on foot, on public transport and in a car driven by her increasingly alarmed best friend (Aiste Zabotkaite) trying to find him, to talk him down before he hurts himself or someone else. All the while, she’s fielding phone calls from her mother hassling her to visit a doctor herself, to get a check-up on her arm, which has a tendency to lose all feeling.

That is really the extent of the plot as described by Blaževičius, Marija Kavtaradzė and Teklė Kavtaradzė’s taut, economical screenplay. But complicated by the missed calls, cryptic Facebook updates and forgotten iPhone chargers of modern fate, and edited with whipcrack energy by Ieva Veiverytė, it provides more than enough material for this brief plunge into the maelstrom. There’s even time for the occasional respite, when we look at the world outside Marija and her mission — though always from her perspective, which gradually becomes more frazzled, more potentially unreliable.

Human interest stories playing on the bus’s TV system, like the one about a boy saving his siblings from a burning building, take on more than merely incidental meaning. A black dog — an image straight out of Churchill’s famous description of depression — starts to follow her around. A groping incident Marija witnesses further builds the uneasy background buzz about gender roles and the harassment dynamic that can exist between men and women. And also, soldiers are milling around on the streets in ever-increasing numbers — unless perhaps this is a projection of some kind of paranoia? There’s a fascinating, if undeveloped sense that Marija might be manifesting some of the symptoms of Vytas’ illness.

Always, we return to Marija, and her belligerently defensive, take-on-the-world frown to which Narvydas Naujalis’s expertly jittery, caffeinated camerawork is constantly magnetized. Brow furrowed, décolletage emblazoned with a full-chest tattoo, Marija is no one’s idea of a classic nursemaid. But that “Runner” for all its frenetic pace (helped along by the angsty beats of Jakub Rataj static-blip score) is really about caring, and the burden of the carer, is made explicit by the initially disconnected prologue in which a woman’s hands, with practiced, efficient gentleness administer a sponge bath to a bed-bound paraplegic man.

The film’s form is ferocious, and about as unrestful an experience as you can have, but its agenda is kinder: to recognize that for some people, love comes at a terrible cost, but that it is their decision if they want to pay it. In a time when the concept of self-care above all has become an unassailable cultural cliché, it’s quietly radical to observe the respect Blaževičius has for Marija, difficult and abrasive though she is, as she burns through all her social capital and half her internal resources for someone who can’t thank her, someone whose own mother thinks is bad for her, someone who hit her.

Her search widens, and gets ragged at the edges, but Marija’s focus narrows to an almost animalistic single-mindedness. She has already lost so much to this quest that maybe it is all she has left. And so when it culminates in an act of crazy, borderline superhuman strength — if faith can move mountains, perhaps love can lift them — it feels, finally, like a vindication, albeit that of the flitting moth who has managed to beat the beloved flame back to life with burning wings.


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