“The Outrun,” the story of a 29-year-old Scottish woman in the throes of, and recovery from (though not necessarily in that order), an increasingly desperate alcoholism, is a drama with a lot of things going for it. It stars Saoirse Ronan, a great actor who, no one will be surprised to hear, lives inside this role as if she’d occupied it her whole life. The film is based on Amy Liptrot’s 2017 addiction memoir (the heroine is now named Rona), and the German director Nora Fingscheidt (“System Crasher”) adapts it in a somber, meditative, structurally free-form way that’s all about broken surfaces and moods of fragmentation and despair (and mutating dyed hair).
Much of the movie is set on the Orkney Islands, a remote archipelago located in the Northern Isles of Scotland and steeped in folklore. This gorgeously severe landscape — the black rocks, the waves, the end-of-the-earth barrenness — is presented as such a head-on analogue of Rona’s inner state (her desolation, her isolation, the ancient mystic connections that could save her) that you may find yourself thinking back to when this kind of thing was poetic in Ingmar Berman movies.
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Yet even Bergman, for all his asceticism, had an austere inner drama queen. On its own unvarnished, metaphoric, diary-of-destruction-and-renewal terms, “The Outrun” is competent and even stylishly made, yet I have to confess: I found the movie overwhelmingly drab. Everything that happens feels specific (at least visually), but also a tad generic. The film leaps around in time, which is all good, yet it never acquires any forward momentum as a narrative. Our empathy, and curiosity, keep crashing up against the rocky shoals of enervation.
Every review of an addiction movie now has to include some version of the Paragraph About Addiction Movies. So here goes: Yes, on some level they’re all the same, because the patterns of addiction are the same, so the real issue is whether the movie in question distinguishes itself in the emotions and details, the sense of this happening to an individual. “The Outrun,” in a notable way, positions itself ahead of that syndrome. It almost seems to embrace the cliché-ness of much of what we’ve seen 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, and 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 the director’s attitude appears to be: 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 it’s the film’s way of looking not at the jumbled journey of an addict but at the single sustained journey of a spirit who happens to be caught in the throes of addiction.
But all that remains a little abstract. For anyone who saw “To Leslie,” the Andrea Riseborough drama about alcoholism that became one of last year’s buzzed-about Oscar sagas, there were plenty of things in that movie you’d seen before — drunken tantrums, the violence of a party girl hitting the skids — yet Riseborough made you feel like you were discovering them for the first time. You always felt the danger of her character, which is a thing with drunks; they can be collateral wrecking crews.
I was riveted throughout “To Leslie,” whereas the 118 minutes of “The Outrun” stretch on in a way that grows repetitive and numbing. I think that’s partly because Ronan, under the meticulous bad behavior, doesn’t completely project the hunger that might have driven Rona to it. 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, but that’s how unstable and in-and-out the situation was.)
Fingscheidt, quite cleverly, uses the length and precise dye job of Rona’s hair to let us know where we are in the story. The hair is full-on aqua when she’s in full alcoholic cry; it’s that color only at the tips, melting into blonde, when she’s trying to leave those days behind; and it’s sunburst orange when she’s blooming in the desolate yet Edenic natural fairy-tale world of the Orkney Islands. Addicts are always on some level isolated, and addiction dramas tend to be about how they move toward others. At moments that happens here, as in Rona’s connection with the crusty island store clerk who can spot a fellow addict a mile away.
But in another sense she needs to withdraw even further. That’s why she’s come to Orkney — it’s surrounded by water, but it’s the ultimate place for a dry-out, for meditative nights in a spartan cabin submerged in the blackness. One can easily see how therapeutic a setting like that would be, especially if you’re meditating on seals. Are the seals, known as selkies, really reincarnations of the dead? As someone who wanted to like “The Outrun” but couldn’t hook into it, I’ll leave it to others to find that question interesting.
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