It’s two years since COVID-19 crept into planetary consciousness. Everywhere, people wait for ‘normal’ to return, while that more rational voice in the head tells them that history only moves in one direction and there’s nowhere to return to — this is it.
Dropping through this rupture in reality to wherever we are now, it’s interesting seeing how people have reacted positively, negatively, indifferently. In the case of Boy Harsher — the duo of Jae Matthews and Augustus Muller — they chose to fill dark times by creating a film and soundtrack. Jeez, how’s that for making an awful lot of us feel like underachievers?
Many modern movies use hyperactive plotting to disguise an absence of cinematic interest. No spoilers but, by contrast, The Runner — a sharp 30-minute horror film — unfurls tantalizingly ambiguous events at a stately place. It can do so because of the lavish quality on display in every aspect of the film. Camera angles are unobtrusive and unshowy while never being obvious or unimaginative. The sparing use of violence is already wise but wedged amid gentler emotional tones, each significantly amplifying its savagery. Concise dialogue gestures toward both unheard preliminaries and aftermaths left unsaid. Even the film’s opening few seconds effectively foreshadow all that is to come with painterly skies that could provoke romantic awe, cleverly giving way to a dark forest that looms up to dominate the view.
The film’s use of music brings out different elements compared to the OST. The stock approach to soundtracks in the Netflix age has become pretty banal, with audiences cued on what to feel and how to interpret every moment. Boy Harsher, instead, use the sound as another element to jostle and unsettle the viewer even when the visuals are seemingly innocuous. That makes it impossible to relax or settle no matter what is actually on the screen. It also means that, where sounds briefly sync up precisely with actions, it’s to potent effect. For example, Matthews’ intones “speak of the devil. She — will — appear” against close-ups weighted with threat and the anticipation of danger.
The soundtrack is approached in two ways within the film. On the one hand, it’s worked subtly into the surround of certain scenes with the volume level perfectly calibrated, sometimes down at the very edge of hearing. On the other hand, music video sequences are rammed right into the film’s fabric but always in appropriately surreal fashion, never in a gimmicky way. What we get is music viewed on TV from a character’s perspective suddenly filling the screen entirely, or the implication that Boy Harsher are the (rather incongruous) bar band playing just out of shot. In addition, there’s a band documentary element that teases an, as yet, unrevealed connection between Matthews, Muller, and the film’s central protagonist.
And what of the soundtrack heard in isolation? First, the OST has its own narrative sense separate from that of the film. Everything rises to two high-energy pop peaks in “Autonomy” and “Machina”. The lyrics to the former, guest-starring Cooper B. Handy (aka Lucy), hover in that space where their poetry invites deeper contemplation, while their vagueness allows you to forget the mind and let the body talk. “Machina”, guest-starring Mariana Saldaña, is the robot counterpart to the humanity of “Autonomy”, vocals glitching on unsentimental lines and gleaming metallic rhythms.
Another notable moment, “The Ride Home”, is as perfect a piece of horror film music as I can imagine. Empty space in sound acts like fog; the listener loses peripheral vision and thus has no idea what’s out there until something looms up out of a blind spot. Here, a heavy beat bounces to near silence, then is answered by a dry metallic skitter coming to rest. With this call-response driving the song forward, certain details pass: short stabs of light, the whirr of wheels shivering a highway, what might be words billowing and dissolving.
The brief vocals on “The Ride Home” are nearly inaudible, making them more instrumental than lyrical. However, the only true instrumental is “Untitled (Piano)”, where the movement of each finger across a keyboard is audible, hovering above a beatless backdrop of sea-spray electronica. The latter tune is paired overtly with “I Understand”, which extends the same tones into a delicate backing for what might be either a forgiving or a hopeless lament.
Another pairing is “Escape” and “Give Me a Reason”. While the former marks movement in its title like “The Ride Home”, its instrumental and vocal approach matches “Give Me a Reason”, each feeling like an electro torch song, heavy beats matching the weight of Matthews’ delivery and her ominous concerns. The opener, “Tower”, takes the same metallic edge but marries them to a backdrop of distant roars that sound fleshy and animalistic until, suddenly, the song is torn to shreds — like “The Ride Home”, it has ‘horror’ written all over it.
Returning to the film, Muller candidly states, “I’d still be making this stuff if no one was listening… There’s something about sticking your hands in these sounds, controlling them. It makes me feel normal — at least for a little while.” It’s a warming, intriguing and ominous sentiment — just perfect for both film and soundtrack.
The end credits — simultaneously a lo-fi music video for “Autonomy”, an introduction to the cast, and a massive release of pent-up pressure — caught me so much by surprise I smiled every time the actors clowned for the camera so thank you Kristina, Sigrid, Cooper, Mariana, James, Dylan, Aaron, Cliff, Josh, Rene, RJ, Cameron, Lauren, James, Jordan, Kathleen, and Tara. While the stand-alone OST might lack this overt humor, what it doesn’t lack is the film’s personality and intrigue. I’m left hoping there’s a continuation of The Runner’s story and its sound-world too.