Red Road

redroad.jpg
Tartan USA
Andrea Arnold/Uinted Kingdom-Denmark 2006

Lars von Trier’s latest brainchild, the “Advance Party” trilogy, sets a new challenge for three promising writers/directors. In true Dogme 95 style, the rules for the filmmakers are laid down beforehand. They must make three different features, all using the same actors playing the same characters. They must also shoot in digital on location in Glasgow, and all in a six-week period.

The first to emerge from her ordeal is Andrea Arnold with her CCTV-based thriller, Red Road. Jackie (Kate Dickie) is a security officer working at the control center for the Glasgow CCTV network. She watches the people of the city go about their business, follows anything suspicious, and calls the police when the nightlife turns ugly.

When Jackie sees a man from her past having sex with a woman behind a garage, she begins to follow his every move. At first she observes him with a concerned curiosity, but this rapidly degenerates into an obsession. There is a subtle plot at work here which reveals itself very gently, and so casually that you might be excused for missing it. She has her reasons for this pursuit, which are revealed in the fullness of time, but there are conclusions to be jumped to before that moment is reached.

The performances are excellent – especially from Dickie, whose lonely, frigid existence seems to feed her hunger for those flickering moments of life on the banks of monitors. However, the real star of Red Road is the city of Glasgow itself. The squalid, windswept locations add a real sense of hopelessness to the lives of its lost characters. A single tower block becomes a terrifying monolith when viewed through the window of a bus, somehow reminiscent of Dracula’s castle. It is the forbidden place that she must go to, and it is a really simple but powerful image.

The sex in the movie is as cold and bleak as the landscape, and the violence is swift and irrational. The sex is also very explicit, but shot in a completely detached way so it doesn’t feel exploitative. It is in no way erotic – far from it. All of the relationships in the film are on a knife edge, there is little warmth or compassion. Jackie is involved with a married man who is using her for sex, and many of the characters seem quick to raise their voices or become aggressively suspicious. Jackie submerges herself into this underclass in her quest to get closer to the mysterious Clyde, played broodingly and sometimes crudely by Tony Curran. Clyde doesn’t mince his words, or his language!

The cold, bleached style of the cinematography does give the film a sharpened edge which heightens the tension. The scene where Jackie talks her way into a party where she knows Clyde will be is a very anxious few minutes for the audience. It’s a “get out of there!” moment akin to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The use of the CCTV cameras is also very effective, as Jackie can observe the lives of those outside with complete impunity. The fact that she crosses the line and interacts with those she has been watching could fuel the argument that our Big Brother culture is corrupted and out of control. It does raise interesting questions about our privacy, and who is watching us.

The film – in its more intimate moments as when Stevie (Martin Compston) apologies to his girlfriend April (Nathalie Press) for not being able to give her a better life – briefly reminds us that these people are surprisingly human after all. They may be the detritus of society living on welfare and in and out of prison, but they have the same wants and needs as everyone else.

Perhaps this is all a little negative though. Does everyone really have to live on beer, whiskey, and the occasional rough fumble in a dimly lit alleyway or across the seats of a van? People do live in denial or without real affection, but the film would be better served by a more positive, human touch. Not to promote sentimentality, but to lift the mood above the suicide level once in a while.

The full truth of the plot is satisfying enough, and does call for a re-evaluation of Jackie and her actions. In the final act there is a sense of closure and forgiveness and of redemption for Jackie, but that would be giving too much away. This is an accomplished piece of work – taut, if a little bleak, but tightly scripted and acted. One piece of advice I would offer though: If you do want your audience to concentrate on the dialogue, don’t put a cute puppy in the shot! Dogs will always upstage humans.

It will be interesting to see what the other two directors, Mikkel Norgaard and Morag McKinnon, produce from this project. I would suggest that they have a steep mountain to climb. What other interesting stories can these characters possibly tell? Keep watching …

© 2006 Phillip Piggott. All rights reserved.

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