The Outrun

The Outrun
The Outrun
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The movie “The Outrun,” is about a 29-year-old Scottish woman who is in the midst of an increasingly desperate alcoholism and her recovery from it (but not necessarily in that order), This film has a lot going for it as drama. It stars Saoirse Ronan, the great actress who — no surprise here — disappears into this part as if she’d been living inside it all her life. It’s based on Amy Liptrot’s 2017 memoir of addiction (the protagonist is now named Rona), and it’s adapted by the German director Nora Fingscheidt (“System Crasher”) in a mournful, reflective, structurally free-form way that’s all about broken surfaces and states of disintegration and despair (and changing dyed hair).

Mostly the movie takes place on the Orkney Islands, a remote archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland with its own folklore. This starkly beautiful landscape — black rocks, waves crashing, end-of-the-world emptiness — becomes such an obvious stand-in for Rona’s inner condition (her desolation, her isolation, the ancient mystic connections that could save her) that you might find yourself thinking back to when this sort of thing was poetic in Ingmar Berman movies.

But even Bergman had his minimalist diva moments. On its own metaphorical, unvarnished, diary-of-destruction-and-renewal terms, “The Outrun” is competent and even stylishly made; still I must confess: I found it mostly dreary. Everything that happens seems particular (at least visually), but also somewhat generic; the film jumps around in time, which is fine enough but never gains any narrative traction as a result. Our curiosity keeps running aground against the rocky reefs of dullness.

Every review of an addiction movie now has to include some version of the Paragraph About Addiction Movies. So here goes: Yes, they’re all the same in a way because addiction patterns are the same, so what matters is whether the given movie distinguishes itself in terms of emotions and specifics, this-happening-to-a-person feeling. “The Outrun,” for its part, positions itself ahead of that syndrome. It almost seems to embrace the cliché-ness of so much that’s gone before in addiction dramas — as if to say “Nothing new here. And nothing too ‘juicy.’ Just misery. But behold the feelings.”

Rona grew up on Orkney but much of the film takes place after she’s moved to London, where she’s training to be a biologist, and where we see her dancing like mad at EDM clubs, throwing up on the street, showing up with a black eye, flaking out of her lab studies; being abandoned by the doting boyfriend (Paapa Essiedu) who can’t take it anymore; standing on an empty road with no way home as a voice barks out of a car pulling up to her, “Hey you need a lift?” (That she would get in that car tells you how far gone she is.) But it seems like the director’s attitude is: Here it all is, the stuff you know about — let’s not dignify it with dramatic italics. Even when Rona arrives at a 12-step program, the moment isn’t treated as pivotal. The whole point of the leaping around in time is that this is not a movie looking at the jumbled journey of an addict but at the single sustained journey of a spirit who happens to be caught in addiction.

But all that remains somewhat abstract. If you saw “To Leslie,” the Andrea Riseborough alcoholism drama which became one last year’s buzzed-about Oscar sagas (even though there was little chance such an off-the-radar movie was going to be nominated for Best Picture), there were plenty things in that movie that you’d seen before — drunken tantrums; violence a party girl hitting the skids — yet Riseborough made it feel like you were seeing them for first time. You always felt danger with her character, which is big thing with drunks; they can be collateral wrecking crews.

“Leslie” kept me riveted from start to finish even though I realized fifty minutes into “The Outrun” that I had stopped caring about any anything. It was just that Rona was getting drunk again and she was going to get thrown out of another club. That’s the thing with movies about addicts; it’s hard to tell the difference between repetitive narrative and repetitive behavior so that at some point the whole experience just becomes numbing, which is what happens here. I think it has something do with Ronan not completely projecting the hunger that might have driven Rona to all this. Underneath all her meticulous bad behavior, there’s a kind of blankness, a lack of desperation. It’s as if the filmmaker thought that would have been too conventional, but what we get instead is even more conventional: spiky scenes with Rona’s bipolar father (Stephane Dillane), who was taken away during a breakdown on the day she was born, and her overly pious Catholic mother (Saskia Reeves). (Her father did return — that’s how unstable and in-and-out he was.)

Fingscheidt uses very cleverly the length and precise dye job of Rona’s hair to let us know where we are in story. The hair is full-on aqua when she’s in full alcoholic cry; it’s that color only at tips, melting into blonde, when she’s trying to leave those days behind; and it’s sunburst orange when she’s blooming in desolate yet Edenic natural fairy-tale world Orkney Islands. Addicts are always on some level isolated, and addiction dramas tend be about how they move toward others; every now then here as ronan connects with crusty island store clerk who can spot fellow addict mile away

But in another sense she needs to withdraw even further. That’s why she has come here — it is an island, but the best place for drying out, if one wants to spend nights of meditation in a bare hut plunged into darkness. It is easy to understand how therapeutic such an environment might be, especially if you are meditating upon seals. Are the selkies really the spirits of the dead? I wanted to like The Outrun but I couldn’t get on with it; so I leave that question for others to ponder.

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