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Becca is out for a run one morning, but as she makes her way down one of the backstreets of her neighborhood, she sees a man and a woman having a fight. Then she sees something truly unsettling: the man shoves her hard enough to knock her out cold. Becca and the man make eye contact as he realizes what he’s done, but before he can say or do anything to her, she runs away, scared for her own safety.
Time passes and she’s lulled back into a sense of safety, trying to put the memory behind her. Until one evening, when she meets the man out one night at a bar — and he insists on walking along the way with her at the end of the night.
Writer-director Clare Cooney — who also plays the lead role of Becca — has crafted a quiet, intelligent urban thriller that explores the issues of silence, intervention and why some cannot speak up even in the face of violence. With precise, intelligent performances and equally smart, complicated writing, the short is a study in power, threat and the subtle yet insidious ways these are asserted — and how it chokes off a sense of agency from those subjected to it.
From the film’s beautiful opening scene, the story captures how the simple experience of making one’s way through the world, energetic and carefree on a beautiful day, can change with just a small, unsettling sense of threat. The camerawork and cinematography begin with a sense of optimism and radiance, capturing an independent, free modern woman in the fullness of her life.
But that sense of possibility begins to constrict once Becca stumbles upon the couple. While the argument between the man and woman is clearly volatile — and their dynamic seemingly abusive — the killing that results is accidental, and the man is upset, stunned and shocked. But when he spots Becca, the sense of threat he emanates is transferred to her, and alone and afraid for her safety, she runs away and later stays silent, traumatized by what she’s seen and scared he might know where she lives. What works in these scenes is how quiet, powerful and yet ultimately underplayed they are, avoiding melodrama and haunting the rest of the film with a sense of fear and threat.
That sense of constant but latent potential violence informs Becca’s actions and emotions throughout the film and play out in a subtle way. Trauma, guilt and fear gradually mold and constrict her world, and her own sense of efficacy within it, and the film itself gets darker in tone and visuals. The writing slowly lays out Becca’s internal emotional journey, which proceeds in an unexpected way. There are beats of disconnection, and maybe even denial, and lulls where the anonymity of modern urban life seems to offer an illusion of safety.
But that illusion is shattered when the man pops up some weeks later at a local trivia night. Proximity means possible peril, and the film shifts into a highly effective thriller, skillfully building up to a tense and suspenseful climax and confrontation that is largely constructed through what remains unspoken but lurking constantly under the surface.
The man’s final scene alone with Becca makes clear he is not afraid to wield power and assert control and dominance in the situation. In the end, he asks Becca, “Are we good?” It sounds like a question, but it feels like a threat. It’s a quiet but explosive moment.
Many will likely see Becca’s dilemma through a moral or ethical lens. Did she do the wrong thing in staying quiet? Why didn’t she just speak up? But arguments of ethics often hinge on assumptions that everyone is an equally free and equal agent in their life. What works about “Runner” and its powerful ending is how it shows that this often isn’t the case. Power and the threat of violence are often subtly wielded, but the silence and complicity it can coerce — even in the interest of self-preservation — are nevertheless deafening and deadening.
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A woman goes for a jog and witnesses something she can’t run away from. | Runner