A Cool and Refreshing Treat

'Fast Runner' blends Eskimos, action, ice and excitement into a delectable film.

Movies about Eskimo (i.e. Inuit) culture, or "Igloo Flicks," as those in the business call them, have not been the highest grossing of films in recent years. The Inuit "gangsta" movie Nanook in the Hood closed almost before it opened, and John Carpenter's ill-fated Mukluks of Mars was never released at all.

In fact, there hasn't been a big Igloo Flick hit since Robert Flaherty's 1922 mockumentary Nanook of the North. Of course, Flaherty gained promo points by out-Spinal Tapping Spinal Tap when he allowed his lead actor to actually starve to death.

This kind of cheap publicity ploy is now considered somewhat gauche, and with good reason. Indeed, the whole idea of a white guy from Michigan making an Inuit movie is at best dated, and at worst a bit tasteless.

Thus it was that production company Igoolik Isuma assembled an all-Inuit cast and crew to create the first Inuit masterpiece, The Fast Runner.

Now, on paper, this movie looks so much like a dog that you'll expect it to do something which is emblematic of a canine in some metaphorical sense, such as begging or rolling in feces. However, don't let the stats fool you.

The stats in question are the following: largely amateur or unknown cast, shot entirely on a featureless ice plain, in the Inuit language, and nearly three hour running time.

The aesthetics, however, are as follows: best ensemble cast in recent memory, gripping story that never drags, gorgeous cinematography that brilliantly uses the limited palette of blue sky, brown skin and white ice to create an almost painterly tableau, and at least one sequence which is already being hailed as a cinematic classic.

The Fast Runner tells the story of a small Inuit community where an evil spirit has taken hold. It seems that long ago, two rivals employed a malevolent shaman to kill the village chief. One of the rivals, Tulimaq, regretted his part, and the other, Sauri, rose to power as the new chief. Years later, Tulimaq's sons, Atanarjuat and Amaqjuang, are the pride of the community, while Sauri's son Oki is the new leader.

Amaqjuang is played by Pakkak Innushuk, who you may remember as the guy who wasn't in Harry Potter, Star Wars, Spider-Man or Minority Report. Having saved up his thespian forces by foregoing the token Eskimo roles in those movies, he manages to give one of the most nuanced and affecting performances in the last year. Amaqjuang is "The Strong One," and his quiet forcefulness is reminiscent of the kind of performance that Charles Bronson was always trying, and failing, to pull off.

However, it's Amaqjuang's brother Atanarjuat who is the focus of the film. Atanarjuat's skill is that he is a fast runner, something you may have guessed from the film's title. While this hardly seems like the kind of trait that would reel in the chicks, it seems to work for Atanarjuat, who not only marries Oki's girlfriend Atuat, but also marries Oki's sister Puja. As you can imagine, this pisses Oki off.

I guess living on an icy plain and eating nothing but caribou and seal is the trade-off that hot young Inuit's made in exchange for having two hot young wives. It seems like a good deal, except that it leads to a bit of strife.

It seems that Puja doesn't quite carry her weight around the house, and Atuat has some complaints. These complaints seem well justified when Puja is caught getting her freak on with Amaqjuang, leading to a very unpleasant series of events that ends with the aforementioned classic sequence. I don't want to give too much of it away, but if you've never seen a naked man running across a frozen sea, then you haven't seen The Fast Runner.

Much of The Fast Runner will seem mysterious at first, and the opening sequence is at best a bit opaque, but the cinematography is so engrossing that you won't mind, and by the time the story gets rolling all the pieces start to come together. Some questions are never answered (like, Why do they live up there? and What's with all the snow?) but all the important plot elements are resolved in a manner that would make Alfred Hitchcock happy.

There are subtle and strong performances by Natar Ungalaaq and Pakkak Innukshuk as the brothers Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq, and a really standout performance by Sylvia Ivalu as Atuat. The stunningly stark northern landscape serves as the perfect background to the eerie human drama, and the violent conflicts are given force by being well situated within the more mundane moments of the Inuit's lives. In short, if you're looking for action, excitement, and Eskimos, then The Fast Runner is the one movie you'll want to see.

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