The mysterious shaman Tungajuaq arrives at a community led by Kumaglak, and through some magical means brings about Kumaglak's death and passes leadership to his son Sauri. Sauri retains the position despite the objections of Tulimaq, and their hostility is continued between their respective sons as they grow up. This becomes especially acute when Atuat, the woman promised in marriage to Sauri's son Oki, shows a clear preference for Tulimaq's son Atanarjuat. Atanarjuat wins her in a ritual duel with Oki.
The Sauri family moves away and Oki finds another wife, so when Atanarjuat visits them while caribou hunting a couple of summers later they greet him warmly. Oki's sister Puja gives him an extra warm greeting, to the point that Atanarjuat takes her back home with him as a second wife. However, she doesn't get along with the other women in the camp, and when she's caught in a compromising position with Atanarjuat's brother, fisticuffs break out. Puja goes crying to her father and brothers that her husband tried to kill her. Oki and his brothers ambush Atanarjuat and his brother as they sleep in their tent, and then things really hit the fan.
Atanarjuat swept the 2002 Genie Awards and won many festival and critic awards in the U.S., though it was not nominated for an Academy Award or a Golden Globe.
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner contains examples of:
- Adaptation Expansion: The story in Lyon's journal was only a couple of pages long, so writer Paul Apak Angilirq added many characters and events.
- Arranged Marriage: Atuat's and Oki's fathers agreed early on that their kids should get married, though only Sauri seems to still be around to enforce it.
- Bawdy Song: A few of these are group-sung at a party, including one that the subtitles attempt to translate as, "If something between your thighs gets stiff, don't let it blast off!"
- Be Careful What You Wish For: The shaman says this to Sauri as he gives him the necklace of leadership, implying that Sauri wanted this to happen.
- Bowdlerise: In the original legend, Atanarjuat killed Oki and his brothers. In the movie, he decides the killing has to stop.
- Devil in Disguise: It's strongly implied that the shaman is this.
- Dull Surprise: A sometime feature of the acting, which isn't surprising given that most of the cast had no previous acting credits (apart from Natar Ungalaaq in the title role).
- Eskimo Land: Because it's set in the past before European contact, all the characters are living the traditional lifestyle with dogsleds, igloos, and a raw-meat diet. However, some other stereotypes are avoided: long sequences take place in the summer, and no elders are put on ice floes.
- Exposed to the Elements: Justified in that the Inuit are well adapted to the cold, so the men hang around shirtless even when it's barely above freezing. The scene of Atanarjuat fleeing his attackers naked (since he was rousted from bed) is modified by the fact that he only survives because he stumbles across another camp.
- Facial Markings: The women all have similar face tattoos; their meaning is never explained.
- Haven't You Seen X Before?: Uttered by Oki when people start staring at him as he takes out his frustrations on his huskies. "Haven't you ever seen anyone kick a dog before?"
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: All brothers seem to be this in this movie, but especially Atanarjuat and his brother. They get over the adultery incident remarkably quickly.
- Kick the Dog: Literally; see above.
- Klingon Promotion: Oki kills Sauri (though he pretends it's an accident) and becomes clan leader; it's insinuated that the shaman was also doing this for Sauri.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: The Adaptation Expansion really expanded, to the point where one 172-minute film is trying to tell a multigeneral epic. The number of characters who play a significant role in the action reaches the point where a cheat sheet/family tree would be helpful.
- Male Frontal Nudity: A lot of it as Atanarjuat flees the ambush in the scene that gives the film its subtitle.
- No Animals Were Harmed: Averted; all the carcasses being butchered in the film are real, though their deaths are not shown.
- Patricide: Oki kills Sauri after Sauri still won't let him have Atuat.
- Polyamory: Atanarjuat practices the old-fashioned kind with his two wives.
- Rape as Drama: Oki eventually rapes Atuat while Atanarjuat is hiding, compounding her misery.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: At the end, Sauri's mother delivers this to Oki and his siblings before telling them to go away and never come back.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Oki and his brothers try to avenge their sister; subverted when Atanarjuat begins one, but decides there's been enough killing.
- Scenery Porn: Some shots linger on the austerely beautiful Canadian arctic just because.
- Shirtless Scene: Quite a few of them, as the men are often shirtless indoors and occasionally outdoors as well.
- Spared By Adaptation: Oki and his sibling.
- Spirit Advisor: Kumaglak's ghost speaks or appears occasionally to influence the action, especially to his widow who keeps trying to communicate with him.
- Time Skip: Several of them, the biggest being the jump from the time when Atanarjuat and his brother are tiny children to when they're grown up.
- The Unfair Sex: Inverted. Everyone blames Puja for the adultery incident, with Atuat even claiming that she's a witch.
- The Vamp: Puja is bad news in exactly the way these women always are. Significantly, she's the only actress in the film ever shown naked (the men are a different story).
- What Happened to the Mouse?: After Atanarjuat's brother is killed, his wife disappears. Presumably she went back to her birth family, but she's never mentioned again.
- Yandere: Oki gets to be like this towards Atuat, eventually raping her and killing his father when he objects.