When you take away a man’s dignity / He can’t work his fields and cows there’ll be
Blood on the scarecrow / Blood on the plow
– “Rain on the Scarecrow,” John Cougar Mellencamp
Usually when movie characters turn to a life of crime, it’s accompanied by a melodramatic emotional outburst or a montage of nefarious wrongdoing. Not so in Kimberly Levin’s Runoff (2014). Here the realization is quiet, subdued. It takes place on a front porch at night as Betty (Joanne Kelly), a Kentucky farmer, silently resolves to accept a neighbor’s money to dispose of his stock of expired produce antibiotic by dumping it in a river. And what choice does she have? A major agricultural conglomerate (oh so subtly named “Gigas”) pressures their bank to foreclose on their mortgage if they can’t immediately make a major payment. Her introspective, bullied son has been accepted to a fancy art school in New York. And her sweet husband Frank (Neal Huff) is dying of a disease they can’t understand that can only be stopped with drugs they can’t afford.
But Runoff isn’t a morality tale. It isn’t trying to warn audiences away from crime or make excuses for Betty’s ultimately destructive decisions. Instead, Levin dares something practically unheard of in modern Hollywood movies: she asks the audience to watch, feel, and come to their own conclusions. She accompanies this largely through emotionally neutral camera compositions—although occasionally there are subtle moments of stylistic flourish, like a shot about fifty minutes in where Betty and Frank are physically partitioned off from each other by a wall in the kitchen, highlighting the strain their respective secrets are having on their relationship—and reserved yet melodious pacing. Most of the time when directors try to evoke the quotidian rhythm of everyday toil, the film ends up being unnecessarily slow, plodding, and tiring. I recently watched Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House (1925), which opens with an extended sequence of a beleaguered wife cooking breakfast and doing her daily chores. While I can appreciate the cultural context in which the film was made vis-à-vis the rise of Naturalism as a style in European cinema, this sequence still felt like we were just watching a woman puttering around the house for a while. But every scene in Runoff feels important, even if its just a couple of kids throwing rocks in a river.
I’ve discovered that Runoff is Levin’s first full-length feature, and if that’s the case, then I hope to see more of her in the future. She seems to have a preternatural instinct for some of the finer points of filmmaking which usually escape first-time directors. Chief among these is the ability to appreciate and linger on a shot not for its importance in terms of advancing the plot or establishing a mood, but simply for the sake of its own beauty. Take, for example, a shot that comes near the tail-end of the film. It involves a moon-lit river, an ambulance, and the flashing headlights of a pair of police cars. It left me dazzled. As the shot when on, I was dreading the moment when the inevitable edit would arrive. But it kept going…just a little longer than it probably should have. I suspect that Levin was getting her joyous fill of this beautiful image. And in this moment I was happy to be a glutton alongside her.