The Fast Runner

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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 lightheaded.

The Fast Runner 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.

Understandably, 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.

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