Big Brother is watching. But in this case, the idea that cameras are watching all corners of a small community in Glasgow is not turned into material for political commentary but rather for an intimate thriller. Andrea Arnolds
Red Road (opening May 4 at Landmarks Ken Cinema) provides a sly riff on Alfred Hitchcocks
Rear Window. Andrea Arnold initially gained attention for her short film Wasp , which garnered an Oscar for Best Short. Now she is the first filmmaker to complete a film for whats been dubbed the Advance Party Concept. Advance Party plans to make a trio of films all set in Scotland and all centered on the same core group of characters created by Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen (both alumni of the Danish Dogme film movement). Scherfig is a Danish director who came to Scotland to make Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself . Now she and Jensen have created a set of Scottish characters that they are handing off to three neophyte directors. The idea is to assign these young filmmakers the same actors, same settings and same essential narrative circumstances and then let each filmmaker deliver their own spin on the elements theyve been handed. Its an interesting artistic enterprise. Red Road , as the first film to result from this experiment, gets the Advance Party Concept off to a brilliant start.
Kate Dickie in Andrea Arnold's Red Road (Tartan Films)
Red Road introduces us to Jackie (stage performer Kate Dickie making her feature film debut). She works for City Eye Control Room, a private security firm that has cameras trained on seemingly every nook and cranny of a rough North Glasgow neighborhood. Jackies job is to watch over a massive bank of monitors and to vigilantly watch for any crimes in progress. She seems like a conscientious worker. She even seems to interest in the lives of people she sees on a regular basis on her TV screensa guy walking his sick dog, a lonely woman rocking out as she cleans her apartment, local kids with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Jackie herself seems to live a quiet life.
But then Jackie spots a man on the monitor one night and takes an interest. We sense that the man might be dangerous as Jackie asks her fellow employees to keep an eye on him. The man turns out to be Clyde (Tony Curran), a recently released convict, and hes been hanging out with a young rowdy friend, Stevie (Martin Compston from Sweet Sixteen ). Jackies interest takes an obsessive turn as she leaves her post as a watcher to actively insert herself into Clydes life.
Red Road is a fascinating film in the way that the plot unfolds. Arnold, who receives sole writing credit although Scherfig and Jensen have had an obvious influence, masterfully withholds information from us. The suspense and tension come from the fact that we dont fully understand what Jackie is up to until the end of the film. Our sympathies are definitely with Jackie as the film begins and we look at Clyde as a potential threat to her. But the tables turn to some degree and Jackie looks to be the one capable of inflicting harm on Clyde. Arnolds ability to constantly shift the emotional landscape of the film makes it fascinating to watch.
In the beginning, Jackie is very much like the James Stewart character in Rear Window . Both are stuck in a room and spend their time observing those around them. Stewarts range is limited to the apartments across the way from his, whereas Jackie has dozens of cameras that can zoom in on people throughout the neighborhood. But while Stewart was confined to a wheelchair and unable to be anything but a passive voyeur, Jackie chooses to abandon her position as a mere voyeur to become an active participant in the world she observes. She even uses the cameras to help her execute her plans. In addition, Jackies ability to essentially see all in the community, makes her kind of god-like and its the power of that omniscient view that seems to give her the confidence to move from being a voyeur to being a manipulator of events.
Red Road (Tartan Films)
Dickie and Curran are superb. Dickie makes Jackie an unlikely stalker and Curran her unexpected prey. Arnold choreographs their interplay with subtle skill and compelling force. They dance around each other through the entire film and it is not until the end that we understand the relationship. The film is, in a sense, a female revenge tale but not in the over the top sense of Kill Bill or Lady Vengeance. Plus those two films were conceived and executed by men. By contrast, Red Roads resolution to Jackies revenge has a more feminine perspective and delivers something unexpected precisely because of that. Those two films contained extreme violence but in a certain sense that overt violence is easier to take than the more subtle forms of violence and emotional harm that occurs in Red Road.
Red Road (unrated but for mature audiences only and in English but with subtitles because of the thick Glasgow accents) is a knockout first feature from Andrea Arnold. Its carefully modulated rhythms and deliberate pace may put off some viewers looking for more action and for a filmmaker who will lead them more clearly through the plot. But anyone with an appreciation for fine cinematic craft will relish what Arnold has done. Her intimate thriller raises moral questions as it ponders guilt, revenge and redemption. She also evokes a mood of tension, unease and dark sensuality.
Companion viewing: Rear Window, The Conversation, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, Ratcather
Listen to the KPBS Film Club of the Air discussion of Red Road .