The Running Man
by Danny King

Dir. Yann Demange, UK, Roadside Attractions

One of the most popular emerging narratives of this escalating Oscar season has been the fast-rising profile of 24-year-old British actor Jack O’Connell. Part of this is due to a kind of perfect storm of release dates and premieres: the Scottish director David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, which features O’Connell as a juvenile criminal wreaking havoc in an adult prison, hit U.S. theaters just as O’Connell and director Yann Demange were earning raves in Telluride and Toronto for their Troubles thriller ’71. Of course, O’Connell’s work in Starred Up and ‘71 wouldn’t be getting so much press in these quarters if not for Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-primed biopic Unbroken, in which O’Connell plays war hero Louis Zamperini.

Aside from timing, there is a more substantial thread connecting these projects, in that each of the roles foregrounds O’Connell’s physicality. In the opening minutes of Starred Up, as his Eric Love is being searched, processed, and documented upon his arrival at prison, O’Connell projects a hypnotic swagger and concentration, as if he knows something that makes him superior to the other people in the room. That something is his savage capacity for violence: in a searing set-piece, a handcuffed Love wraps his mouth around the crotch of a guard, threatening to chomp down on the man’s penis (all things considered, an effective means of asserting one’s dominance).’71, too, opens with physical activity, showing the young British soldier Gary Hook (O’Connell) participating in a series of training exercises: boxing, running, crawling through tunnels and streams of water. In a short amount of screen time, Demange—making his feature-length debut after a string of TV work in the U.K. (Dead Set, Top Boy)—suggests the broad range of a soldier’s experience, buffering the intensity of these physical drills with focused strategic discussions in a classroom-like setting (a map sits at the front of the room, and the speaker carries a pointer) and uncomfortable, sleepless nights spent smoking cigarettes and lounging on thin cots. After this brief initiation, Hook’s unit is deployed to Belfast on a peacekeeping mission, with the fresh-faced platoon commander exuding a questionable air of complacency as he asks his soldiers to leave behind their shields and rifles and take to the heated, ripped-up streets wearing just their uniforms and berets.

The unit’s task begins with a house search, but the overwhelming ferocity of those on the street—enraged citizens fling rocks at the soldiers, spit in their faces, and smash trash-can lids against the pavement—turns the situation inside-out. After a British soldier is shot at brutal point-blank range, the unit is ordered to return to its barracks, but Hook—having been caught and beaten behind enemy lines—is left stranded, with a batch of IRA members eager to hunt him down. Here, Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe—shooting on 16mm film for the daytime sequences, before switching to digital video for night—unleash the movie’s first rip-roaring chase sequence, with a jagged, flustered camera following Hook as a team of men chase him through the city. The camera pummels forward through bombed-out walls and crumbling houses, tracing Hook’s movement, transforming Belfast into a maze—a torn city whose buildings and roads are intricately connected via shattered structures and wreckage-heavy corridors.

As night falls, Hook, having lost his pursuers, swipes a fresh outfit from a clothesline and sets off to return to his base. He crosses paths with a mouthy kid (Corey McKinley) and, though the boy’s brash confidence is amusing, the insistent broadness of his personality—basically every line is a cuss-word or a confrontational observation—hints at the generic characterizations that define the rest of the movie’s supporting roles. For instance, the minute the youngest member (Barry Keoghan) of a rebel faction appears onscreen, stone-faced and committed to the cause, it’s clear that the movie is setting him up for a
moment-of-truth reckoning later on—just as it’s clear that, when Demange lingers on the location of the Divis Flats on the map in the earlier classroom scene, he’s hinting at the setting of the film’s climax. Playwright Gregory Burke, here working on his first credited screenplay, has a knack for this milieu—his Black Watch was based on interviews with former soldiers—but there’s a lack of nuance to his narrative telegraphing. Nor, moreover, is his balancing of the movie's political angle all that compelling or complicated: any of the tragedies that befall Hook and the people around him are ultimately attributed less to the specifics of this particular historical conflict (neither side is rendered more culpable than the other) than they are merely to the destructive and chaotic nature of war in general.

The location work—Blackburn and Liverpool stood in for Belfast—and the period detail here are impeccable, mixing convincingly dirty, apocalyptic images (each street seems to have its own destroyed, up-in-flames vehicle) with a few stand-out colors (red-brick houses, green uniforms) and evocative locations (smoky pubs, backrooms strewn with whiskey). And though Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday (2002) stands out as a clear precedent, ‘71, at its best, refrains from the reportage-like realism that defines the Greengrass style for something more expressive and subjective. The most daring sequence in the film occurs after a bomb reduces a pub to rubble. Given that the explosion, in narrative terms, is a surprise, a more conventional director might have concluded the scene with it, sending the viewer into the next scene in a bit of a shell-shocked state. But Demange holds this moment for much, much longer, following a bleary, bloodied Hook as he gets up from the ground, assesses the damage, and stumbles through the nighttime alleyways. The camera, complemented by the disoriented sound design, mimics Hook’s mental state, moving in and out of focus at random intervals. The time Demange devotes to this aftermath divulges his investment in Hook’s subjectivity.

Regrettably, however, Hook’s psychology becomes less and less readable as the film progresses, with Demange exchanging this nervy subjectivity for a more strictly down-the-middle docudrama approach. The aforementioned apolitical quality of Burke's screenplay contributes to this, downplaying Hook’s British identity in order to present him more as a universal surrogate/cipher/stand-in representing the damaging impact combat has on the lives and psyches of young men. This would be more effective if Demange persisted in offering a compelling subjective approach, but as the movie reaches its concluding section it weighed down by a thick, heavy-handed moralism. Instead of capitalizing on the geographic ingenuity of the earlier chase sequence, Demange’s handling of the climax’s promising set-up—a knife-wielding Hook tiptoeing his way through the Divis apartment complex, attempting to dodge and outwit his enemies—becomes muted in the face of the banal moral platitudes embodied by the various characters. While stitching up his wounded stomach, an ex-army medic (Richard Dormer) tells Hook that the army thinks of him as nothing more than a “piece of meat.” Elsewhere, a bunch of rhyming lines—“The situation is confused, to say the least,” “It was a confused situation”—hammer home the idea of the absurdity of war and the carnage that it leaves in its wake.

That the movie, in thematic terms, amounts to a basic declaration of these obvious truths is less disappointing than the fact that Demange is ultimately uninspired in expressing them. This reduces the centrality of O’Connell’s physicality; even though the role has only meager requirements—run, grimace, repeat—the effectiveness of '71 tends to correlate directly with how closely it aligns itself with Hook’s POV. Unfortunately, Demange and Burke save their most objective aims—moral declarations, positing Hook as a standard everyman—for a finale that engages only with convention.