Sony // 2001 // 172 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // July 3rd, 2003
Perhaps the only movie we'll ever hear in Inuktitut 5.1.
The Fast Runner is a rarity among movies in that it seems completely free of artifice. The Inuit people turn the camera on themselves and portray a legend that is thousands of years old. This legend has been passed from generation to generation the old-fashioned way: word of mouth. The Inuits have inhabited their special plot of land near the Arctic Circle for 10,000 years. They don't write much, and that bias extends to moviemaking as well. In some ways, The Fast Runner is a failure of a film. But in other ways, it tells a powerful story and gives us a unique glimpse into another culture.
Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq are popular brothers in the camp. Atanarjuat is fast and Amaqjuaq is strong. Together, they are an unbeatable hunting team. Their charm and skill rub the ladies the right way, to the dismay of the other men in the camp. Oki, the tribe leader's son, is particularly incensed because Atanarjuat has a thing for his promised bride, Atuat. Atanarjuat wins Atuat in ritual combat and marries her.
Years later, Oki's conniving sister Puja picks up the family standard. She burns with jealousy also, and uses her charms to seduce Atanarjuat. She becomes his second wife. Her presence disrupts the camp and offends Atuat. But life is harsh in the Arctic Circle, and pettiness has no place if they want to survive. Somehow, the tribe must find a way to live in harmony.
Living in harmony is more difficult than it might seem, because evil has found its way into the hearts of the Inuit people. Before unity can be restored, the evil must be somehow purged.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have this to say for The Fast Runner, and it is high praise indeed: this film is unique in the history of cinema. The Inuit people live secluded in a culture that is foreign to ours in every way. Their world is brought to light on the silver screen not by the pocketbooks and perspective of exploitative Westerners, but by the Inuits themselves. The story feels authentic, the interactions natural. We are privileged to have such an honest story brought into our living rooms.
The Fast Runner is timeless: did it take place yesterday or 10,000 years ago? Neither would surprise me. Their way of life has been relatively unchanged for thousands of years. Though modern conveniences have found their way into the Inuit way of life, the story still seems relevant.
The only way this film could seem more realistic is if you watched it in the freezer. The sheer detail is impressive, from the way they clean animal carcasses to the way they slicken sled rails. In driving the sled teams, the drivers use a gentle, caressing hand with the whip that simply indicates to the dogs where to go. You sense that the dogs know the pain of the whip, but it is long removed from their daily lives. Inuit eyes are crinkled from exposure to the sun. Caribou and bird carcasses are real, as though they left the camera on while making dinner. The snow takes on a life of its own. The sights and sounds of crunchy snow, soft snow, yellow snow, cracked ice, melting ice, and so forth seem real. [Editor's Note: Remember, don't eat the yellow snow.] When they build the igloo, you feel like you're sitting on the cold ground freezing your buns off. These glimpses into the reality of Arctic life carry the tale even when the narrative lapses.
The acting is not performed in a traditional sense, but the characters are brought to life. Perhaps it is due to the archetypal quality of the story. Impassive faces manage to denote the correct hint of pique, lust, fear, or boredom. The actors are often hidden behind bulky clothing, like snow astronauts. Their actions slowly form a picture of restraint. For example, when Oki and Atanarjuat quarrel over Atuat, they do not fight each other. Instead, everyone gathers in the lodge and observes while the two take turns striking each other on the head with the bottoms of their fists. The loser is the first to fall. This complete attenuation of human impulse speaks volumes; unity is necessary for survival.
On a personal note, the story wove itself into my dreams the night after I watched The Fast Runner. The tale is so fundamental to human nature that it is easy to put ourselves into it. At the same time, it maintains a permanently alien aura because of the unique world of the Inuits. I doubt many of us will ever have to sleep next to our mortal enemies simply for bodily warmth. Something about the tale captured my imagination, stirred me so much that I pondered it in my dreams.
In essence, The Fast Runner is a masterful campfire story. When seated around the campfire with no TV, no video games, no cares but the whims of the weather, your perspective slows. Days may fade into one another, threatening your sense of urgency. The Fast Runner captures that sensibility, telling the tale among the rudiments of survival.
As a movie, The Fast Runner is just plain bad. I'm sorry to have to say it.
The film warns us at the beginning. An apology notifies the viewer that they will be a third wheel in the proceeding film: "I can only tell this story to those who understand it." These words are so true. The Fast Runner is based on a thousand-year old oral legend. If you don't already know the legend (which you likely won't unless you are an Inuit), the movie throws you no bone, no hint of what is going on. The first third of the film is incomprehensible. Who is who, what is what, why and how are all mysteries. After watching the movie and reading some criticisms, I learned that an evil shaman cast a spell on the tribe. I'll be damned if I saw that anywhere. We can see that bad things are happening, but why and for what reason are poorly explained.
The beginning is completely indecipherable, and the rest isn't much better. Some of the confusion is due to authenticity: everyone wears clothes made from the same animal hide. It is difficult to tell who is who in many of the scenes. The film is just under three hours long, but it took me at least 3 1/2 hours to get through as I constantly rewound scenes.
Clothing is not the only culprit. The true antagonist is the editing. I cannot begin to describe the wretchedness of the editing. Continuity errors abound, which forces the astute viewer to constantly reassess time and place. The pacing is unforgivable. There are overlong scenes, undercut scenes, extraneous scenes, and scenes that would be more powerful if re-edited. In one example, Atuat is raped by Oki. Why? Oki has already established his unhealthy obsession with Atuat. He has already proven his malevolence as well. The rape serves no function of plot, character, or narrative. Why is it there? Other cases are shots of birds wheeling overhead, or dog teams riding, or kayak trips, or cleaning blubber that are all too long.
Transitions are particularly bad. Scenes lead into other scenes with jarring lack of rhyme or reason, and we are left to catch up on our own. Rewind, again, once you get a clue. The Fast Runner could easily have been trimmed down to 2 1/2 hours, felt tighter and less confusing.
The Fast Runner has a distinct look due to the digital video employed. Digital video was certainly the most logical choice given the frigid temperatures, but the look suffers. Detail evaporates in blossoming highlights, colors are off, and edges are jaggedy. The dark interior scenes are particularly maddening, with dull red light, blooming lamp flames, and extremely poor shadow detail. Video quality is hit or miss, because the images are periodically artistic. The whole affair seems like a documentary-level effort with occasional moments of artistry achieved: COPS on Ice.
There is apparently a supernatural element to the film, but it is ineffectively handled. It is as though the filmmakers were afraid to confront the issue head-on, and used oblique hints to point to supernatural forces. Since most viewers are probably already confused by simply absorbing the culture and deciphering who is who, this subtlety is completely lost. When the supernatural realm is revisited near the end (seemingly for the first time, unless you paid careful attention), it feels out of place.
Many critics praise the sparse, primitive score. I found it maddening. Completely misplaced instruments such as didgeridoos and maracas are prominently featured. Didgeridoos? Are there termites in the Arctic circle? Didgeridoos are used to great effect in films like Walkabout, lending an authentic note of menace or seclusion to certain scenes. Once could argue that the instruments employed in a score don't need to be constrained to the locale depicted onscreen. However, given the complete realism of the rest of the film, the instruments seem out of place.
These mounting flaws indicate imperfect mastery of the tenets of filmmaking. As a film, The Fast Runner is neither easy nor enjoyable to watch. The unique glimpse we have been given absorbs much of the negative, but lovers of film may find the experience frustrating.
The Fast Runner has such glaring flaws that one might suspect an "emperor's new clothes" effect powering its critical acclaim. Critics aren't inclined to slam these culturally unique cinematic efforts. In the case of The Fast Runner, some of the flaws are so readily apparent that it would be phony not to point them out.
Really, does it matter? We may never again get such an honest and detailed view into the life of a foreign culture. The story is powerfully engaging. The plight of the characters, their sacrifices and ambitions, are only too familiar. As a film, The Fast Runner has problems. Furthermore, the story is clumsily told, with necessary detail obfuscated. But the film draws you into a world you've never seen, giving you the impression that you are there. For that alone, The Fast Runner is a worthy film and a worthwhile experience.
For sheer passion and heart, the cast and crew are released without penalty. Thanks for letting us share your campfire for a few hours!
Review content copyright © 2003 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Inuktitut)
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R