Runoff is set in an unnamed rural American town where wide-open, beatific skies stand in stark contrast to the poisoned ground, a consequence of the agrochemicals distributed by a large-scale farm company called GIGAS. The corporate monolith is also putting the squeeze on Betty (Joanne Kelly) and Frank’s (Neal Huff) farm-supply business. Rather than reflexively laying blame for the family’s hardship at the feet of big business, however, writer-director Kimberly Levin’s film acutely conveys the characters’ complicity in their own undoing. A recurring image of an anguished Betty watching a crop-dusting plane quietly connects the idea that the pesticides her husband peddles to local farmers cause biological harm for the entire town even as they simultaneously keep their family out of the red.
Runoff exudes a compelling naturalism, reveling in silence that communicates not how little these characters have to say to one another, but the way in which their true nature is revealed by what they do or don’t do. When Betty decides to smoke pot with her oldest son, Finley (Alex Shaffer), it simultaneously signals a desire to enter his world and a willingness to push past the boundaries of prudence. And so when the bank threatens foreclosure against their home and a local farmer, Scratch (Tom Bower), offers Frank and Betty quick cash to illegally dispose of expired chemicals, it’s not surprising that Betty is the one to take initiative. Frank resists this overture by claiming the family’s love is all they need; Betty thinks such a stance is idealistic hogwash.
In reaching its reckoning, however, Runoff takes a suddenly intrusive turn into the overwrought. As Betty dumps the toxins on Halloween night, the film awkwardly strains for the tenor of a horror film, with an entirely superfluous supporting character turning up at just the wrong moment in a contrived effort to raise the level of tragedy. But in spite of its wobbly lurching toward the finish, this emotionally affecting film never loses sight of the ethical complexity of forsaking a community in the name of an individual. It also doesn’t sacrifice Betty’s distressed vulnerability to render her a paragon of domestic heroism. Though the screenplay finagles a pat excuse to absolve her legally, it never excuses her emotionally, putting her moral relativism squarely under the microscope and then squashing it. The film’s haunting final shot is tellingly not of Betty and her family; it’s of Betty sad-eyed and alone on the highway, the cash in her hand good for nothing much more than wiping away her guilt-stricken tears. You reap what you sow.