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Running Scared: a Movie Review that Devolves into Politics

From what do we run?


That is the thesis of Running Scared.

The movie takes place in a stylized rendition of New Jersey and tells of one night’s combat between the Italian Mafia, the Russian Mafia, crooked cops, and the people caught in between. Our protagonist, and the man who does the vast majority of the running, is Joey, a low-level tough tasked with disposing of a gun used to kill a dirty cop.

Things do not go well and therein adventure lies.

Or perhaps not. While the gore and the cinematography and the music all drew me in—and have over half a dozen viewings—what really interests me are the psychological adventures of many of the characters. Consider:

Joey turns out to be an undercover cop. He presents a hard edge, but as his wife puts it, “I didn’t marry an evil man.” He pleads with his wife at the end of the film, when it seems he is on death’s door, that he was always “the real Joey.” There is a disconnect between the person he presents and the person he is.

His Russia neighbor, Anzor, beats his wife and abuses her child; and in turn gets shot by said child (precipitating the running of the film). Yet we learn from that selfsame wife that he saved her, still pregnant, from being killed by his uncle for not having the child aborted. The price for this was being ostracized from the family. Now a decade later he has devolved into drugs and paranoia, yet underneath the grime there is a man who is deeply, almost pathologically devoted to John Wayne and the cowboy ethos. He ends the movie refusing to kill the boy who shot him and dying for his honor. Another double life.

Teresa, Joey’s wife, finds herself looking for Anzor’s kid Oleg (himself running after shooting his guardian), and discovers that he has been stolen by a married couple who kidnap, film, and desecrate children. She saves his life, along with 2 other children, and kills the deranged couple with no hesitation. As she puts it to Joey, “I have never seen true evil until tonight.” Another example of an inner reservoir of strength not readily apparent at the beginning of the film.

As a final example, we have Lester the pimp. He finds himself beat up a few times but ultimately in possession of the gun everyone is trying to find (the one Oleg used to shoot Anzor). In confronting Oleg and Joey at the end of the film, Lester blurts out “Say hello to my little friend,” before shooting Joey in the side. What does this evince but a man running from his own sense of inadequacy and lack of real power?

This movie has been criticized for a lack of character development. I submit that good stories need not possess character arcs as such, wherein someone learns something and becomes “a better person.” Rather, a story like this benefits from an arc of discovery on the part of the audience. These people are presented to us fully formed, and as such each is his own enigma at the start of the movie; with each reaction and every bit of information they share, we learn more about who they are.

Doesn’t that seem more psychologically realistic than a 3 act story where clear lessons are learned and growing happens as a matter of course? Most people do not change beyond a certain point. Their characters are set by years of social development mixed with genetic predisposition and a little trauma thrown in for good measure. By the time adulthood is reached, I contend, most people stop developing. Instead, they grapple with the world using the tools they find themselves possessing and go from there.

Growth can happen, does happen, needn’t happen. It is not guaranteed. Some characters, like Joey, are just good guys caught up in something that is unraveling in their hands, fighting the good fight but facing defeat at every turn. Others, Anzor for example, degenerate from a childhood ideal but retain that core somewhere—rarely called upon but there nonetheless. As his wife says, “He’s not a killer.” She was right. He was a junky with a quixotic sense of right and wrong.

I love this movie because of these psychological depths. I love this movie because we are privy to developed characters dealing with situations they were never prepared for, situations that don’t yield growth so much as truth: their real selves are exposed in the light of trauma, and we get to see what each of them are made of.

I am reminded of Lord of the Flies, a book I cannot get out of my head of late. The lord of the title is a totem left by a group of boys surviving on a desert island, a pig’s head impaled upon a stick and stuck in the ground. It is there as a ward against an unknown beast that stalks them as they hunt and play and devolve. In reality, of course, the beast is no external monster: it is the savage in each of the little children, and they pay for their lack of insight with the deaths of at least 3 of their number.

This reminds me of something a little more contemporary: Mr. Trump. Having watched his rise in popularity, having caught his speeches, researched his claims, and dug into his various positions, I have come to two realizations.

First, he has no substantial political platform. Over the past six months, he has changed positions on every single issue on which he has given an opinion. There is no need to give proof of this here. Those who realize this never supported him, and those who do not will not be swayed by anything  I say here.

His lack of any semblance of a platform led me to my second realization: his is the candidacy of the flies; it is his head that so many of us wish to hold up against the beasts of the night; his talking points that buzz around and die like the flies that dance around the pig’s head, deafening us to their void-speech. We support him because we are afraid of the savagery within every human breast. We support him because he presents himself as a fighter and a champion against that savagery.

We support him because we don’t think he would run from what scares us, not realizing that because his internal man is so radically different from the external, that he is a coward that presents as a brawler, he would be at the head of the race and beat us all into the abyss.

We do not realize that he is a product of our fear, not a champion against it. His popularity is the result of looking for solutions through broken glasses. He is the destroyer of civilization, not its savoir.

I suppose the logical thing is to ask towards what ought we run? Or put more politically, whom should we look to as our champion?

What ought we look for in a leader? Someone who gets things done, who doesn’t bullshit, who respects the law (or doesn’t, if he’s breaking it for something you support), who reverences the Constitution (or recognizes it as a fallible human document), who will defend our country (but does that mean preemptive action or just diplomacy), who will invigorate the economy (whose economy)…

We live in a federated republic. That means our leaders have the impossible job both of responding to the general will and tempering the extremes of popular opinion for the sake of compromise, stability, order (control, if you like). It is an impossible task because what some see as a mandate from the people others take to be mob violence against political minorities, or just the loudest minority getting their way by acclamation.  It is a job I do not envy.

My vote, such as it is, will go to Bernie Sanders.

I don’t agree with everything he says. I am suspicious that we will be able to get enough money by taxing the billionaires and corporations to pay for what he wants to do (although does it really matter if the government technically has enough money, because it doesn’t seem to…); I tend to think free trade does more good than harm (but perhaps the agreements we have in place are better for businesses than their employees); I appreciate his stance on gun control that there needs to be compromise between urban and rural citizens.

I am not convinced that healthcare and education are universal human rights, but then again I remain unconvinced that rights are really a thing at all, except within a cultural context. If enough people are convinced that everyone should be able to speak their mind within reason, then suddenly we have that right; if enough people think that basic healthcare (however defined) is required by all, then suddenly it becomes a right. I do think that, in the ideal, basic healthcare and higher education have the potential for civic utility and should thus be taken seriously as ideas. This assumes the healthcare is not extraneous and the education useful and meaningful, but if we take those assumptions as granted, then there is a real conversation that must needs be had.

Regardless, Sanders has several things going for him that I find compelling. I think he is a good citizen, well spoken. Unlike Trump or Clinton, Sanders comes across as a man trying to do his best for the national community rather than merely for himself. Trump’s campaign is about the Brand; Clinton’s is about the Legacy; only Sanders cares about the Union.

He also strikes me as the most rational candidate, in how he presents himself, how he converses with others, how he interviews. I get the impression that I could sit down and have an actual conversation with him, dialogue about the issues, and have him actually hear me.

I also admire his consistency, not so much on various issues but in his efforts towards doing real civic good. I don’t care if this or that position of his has or has not changed over his political career; I care that for the duration, he has striven towards the public good. Trump, the developer of casinos, thinks only of his private aggrandizement. Clinton, the head of a decades old political machine, is just as selfish.

So, I submit that Sanders is the man to vote for. If you disagree with his policies, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that he has come to his opinions after, I think, real consideration for their public worth. The second is that our political system was built such that no branch has all the power. As Sanders himself has stated, without Congress behind him, he will be able to accomplish very little. If enough people want his reforms to pass, it will happen with the approval of the legislature. If not, then he will have a difficult four years. Either way, compromise is inevitable; the tempering of his platform is inevitable. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, no one with whom you will agree 100%. But there is such a thing as a candidate with a “good brain,” to quite Trump, such a thing as a candidate willing to put the Union above himself, such a thing as a civically-minded politician. I think such men deserve to be elected. If reason is against them on an issue, they can be swayed. If money or power tempt them away from the public good, they have the fortitude to at least put up resistance.

There is no shame in electing a man for his virtue. That, as Montesquieu was so fond of reminding us, is the well-spring from which Republics flow.