In illustrated, Review
Original caricature by Jeff York of Clare Cooney in her short film RUNNER. (copyright 2019)

It’s always exciting to witness a filmmaker who demonstrates an acute sense of storytelling right off the bat in their very first movie. Such is the case with Clare Cooney, a young actress who has made a short film entitled RUNNER. She’s not only the lead in the deft new thriller, but the newbie wrote, produced, edited, and directed it too. Cooney seems to be an absolute natural. Her script is smart, the direction nuanced, and the camerawork and editing utterly precise, knowing just when to cut or hang on a moment a tad longer. Expect this incredible talent to become a star very soon, both in front of the camera and behind it.

Cooney made this film for just $900 in 2017, but it looks better than a lot of Oscar-nominated shorts I’ve viewed in the past. This one has a crackerjack story going for it too. The film begins with its main character Becca (Cooney) starting her daily run through the streets of Chicago. Becca, in a few quick strokes, is presented as an exceedingly careful woman. She looks down the various streets for traffic as she runs and maintains a pace that is slow and deliberate.

But then she turns down an alley and discovers a twentysomething couple having a hellacious argument. The man (Will Allan) suddenly grabs his girlfriend in a rage and throws her hard against a dumpster. She crumples in a heap and doesn’t move. Neither does Becca who freezes, watching in disbelief at all that has occurred.

The expression on the man’s face suggests he can’t believe what he’s done either. It’s one of the first moments in the short where you see the genius of director Cooney. For starters, actor Allan has a wide-eyed, sweet looking face. He’s hardly the sort you’d immediately cast in such a killer role, but Cooney has made a good living as a casting agent in Chicago for some years and clearly realizes that zigging while others zag is the key to avoiding casting clichés.

When Becca’s eyes meet those of the killer, they’re both terrified, but then his flight or fight response goes haywire as if egged on by his inner id, and he starts to chase after Becca. Before she can even fathom that she could be his second victim, she high tails it out of there, easily outrunning him.

Cooney could have told the story in a straightforward style, but she cuts the story apart, juxtaposing images against each other that startle and challenge our thinking. Just as Becca starts to run away from the crime scene, the story cuts to a day or two later with Becca loudly crunching her slice of toast. She’s on the sofa with her boyfriend Griffin (Travis Knight), enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon together, when he reads in the paper that the victim she saw did die. That retriggers Becca’s terror and her memory of rushing home to Griffin to tearfully tell him all she saw in that alley. Are we to assume, by the order in which Cooney has cut her narrative, that Becca’s testimony ended with Griffin? I think so.

That begs questions about Becca’s character. Does she feel powerless? Is she afraid or passive? What? We don’t quite know, and Becca remains enigmatic, but we do see her trying to move on, even though she hasn’t quite put all of the terror behind her.

When the story fast-forwards to the winter, the weather isn’t the only thing that seems chillier. Becca seems a bit icy herself, even remote, and definitely isolated within her own thoughts. When the last part of the short film moves to a local bar for trivia night, Becca will discover that she may have been able to run away from the killer, but she can’t outpace her moral responsibilities, her guilt, or coincidence. Fate has a funny way of tailing one.

Cooney’s direction throughout is tense and nervy, yet never overplayed. No joke or metaphor is underlined, and even though the filmmaker has a degree in psychology, she doesn’t overanalyze Becca’s foibles. Her script stays shrewd and subtle too. If you’re not paying attention, you might miss the throwaway references to Stephen Sondheim musical ASSASSINS and Sarah Koenig’s podcast SERIAL. Cooney also draws superb work out of her talented cinematographer Jason Chiu, particularly when he frames one character entering the bar out of focus, yet we can see just enough of time to know precisely who he is. The whole film works like gangbusters, and it does it in less than 12 short minutes.

RUNNER was part of a Seed & Spark campaign to crowdsource funds to enable the music licensing and add some finishing touches to the film before nationwide distribution. In the past year, it did manage to play brilliantly as is at 15 film festivals, taking six prizes in the process. Cooney should start clearing more mantle space. She’s an exquisite actress, on par with someone like Jessica Chastain or Emma Stone, as indicated by her stellar turn in Michael Glover Smith’s charming comedy RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO earlier this year. Perhaps even greater rewards await Cooney for her work behind the camera. Based on RUNNER, that’s an assumption to run with.

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