In an era of reckoning that is rapidly running out of new ways to describe the evil men do, “toxic masculinity” has become all too familiar a buzz term. But it could hardly be more aptly applied to the simmering psychopath at the center of “Midnight Runner”: A clean-cut champion athlete who leads an escalating parallel life as a serial assaulter of women, he appears to be incrementally poisoned from the inside out by his most violent impulses, turning from dysfunctional to dangerous as the sepsis spreads. Fictionalizing and updating events that made Swiss headlines in the 1990s, Hannes Baumgartner’s stern, glass-gazed debut feature courts debate by assuming his point of view for much of its short, sharp running time — achieving a clinical kind of empathy in its attempt to penetrate the male predator’s psychology.
Unspooling in San Sebastián’s New Directors showcase before a home-turf premiere in Zurich, this skilful provocation — which trades less in explicit onscreen shocks than disquieting dread — ought to parlay its chilly polish and topical talking points into extensive festival play. Commercially, it’s on less certain footing, though the rising star of young leading man Max Hubacher (fresh from his strong turn in Robert Schwentke’s “The Captain”) will aid European sales. It’s a high-risk role for Hubacher, and one he plays with unnerving poise, flashing signals of disassociation without succumbing to broad psycho cliché.
Festival audiences who haven’t done much prior research will be taken especially off-guard by “Midnight Runner,” which, rather like its secretive protagonist, takes time to reveal its true, somber colors: In the early going, the film appears to be building into a rather stoic against-the-odds sports drama. Bare-bones title cards sketch in the grim backstory of Jonas Widmer (Hubacher), a 23-year-old junior chef and long-distance runner based in Bern: In infancy, he and his older brother Philipp (played in flashbacks by Saladin Dellers) were victims of such extreme parental negligence that Jonas couldn’t even walk by the age of four, while six-year-old Philipp hadn’t yet learned to speak.
As we open on present-day Jonas finishing second in the Langenfeld Army Run — a locally prestigious marathon that he won the year before — while his adoptive mother (Sylvie Rohrer) and girlfriend Simone (Annina Euling) cheer him on, it would appear that the intervening decades have mended the broken boy. Yet viewers will gradually perceive that all is not well with this outwardly strapping man, and it’s not just lingering grief over Philipp’s suicide one year previously.
On public transport, he stares a little too long and a little too intently at female strangers; at work, his initially reciprocated flirtation with a new kitchen trainee would seem invasive even if he weren’t keeping Simone wholly out of the picture. Late one night, rebuffed by a woman in the street after he offers assistance, he impulsively responds by snatching her handbag and racing into the darkness. It’s an irrational, inexplicable crime that launches a series of more calculated, progressively more violent sidewalk attacks on vulnerable women; as Jonas remains unidentified, a climate of fear permeates Bern’s female population.
Baumgartner’s lean script, co-written with Stefan Staub, doesn’t overtly psychoanalyze its protagonist, instead dropping unresolved details for the viewer to parse: a deliberately unopened letter from his biological mother, for example, or shivery nightmares over Philipp’s absence that suggest complex fraternal tensions. Editor Christof Schertenleib adeptly weaves such passing contextual information into the film’s queasy forward thrust. If the film’s subtlety in this regard verges on the opaque, that’s in line with a character who has fatally little ability to express or explain himself, and who commits his crimes with the same bland, target-oriented tunnel vision with which he runs his races.
Amid a wasteland of snapped nerves and ill-stitched seams of trauma, the lack of a pinpointed explanation or trigger for Jonas’s behavior makes “Midnight Runner” both discomfiting and credible. It’s to the film’s credit that it avoids banal rationalizations, even if many viewers might reasonably ask what they stand to gain from spending 90 very well-constructed minutes in his isolated world. Shot and shaped with brisk clarity that proves a deceptive facade for the inchoate tangle of reason and no-reason in its fact-based narrative, Baumgartner’s impressively alienating debut doesn’t finally profess to understand men who don’t understand themselves. It just takes a steady, focused run into the void.