Since capturing, among other awards, the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes 2006, Red Road has collected plenty of hoopla. Justifiably, it turns out. This debut feature by Brit Andrea Arnold is haunting, brainy, spare--and it's also topical, tapping into the paranoia induced by increasing surveillance, whether by phone/wire-tapping or, as in Red Road, CCTV. At the same time, Arnold stirs into the mix a provocative view of female sexuality that's likely to rile the p.c police.
Intriguingly, Arnold has pulled this off in a film that sounds the opening salvo from the Advance Party Concept, the Dogme-inflected brainchild of Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, employees of Danish co-producer Zentropa. Three directors were reportedly invited to develop scripts around the same group of characters, all of whom must be based in Scotland. Sidestepping what could have become a gimmicky exercise, Arnold has set the bar high. As stated in the production notes, she was able to "tap into the things that had resonance for me and write a story that felt like my own."
Jackie (the superb Kate Dickie) works as a CCTV operator scanning the mean streets around a desolate Glaswegian tower block (Red Road), the equivalent of our projects. Solitary and gnawed-on by a mysterious past, Jackie spends her days manning a bank of screens that resemble a jigsaw puzzle of other people's lives. Her main recreation is the occasional shag in a car with a married colleague. That the camera is trained on his backlit hairy butt, while cows low in a nearby field, foreshadows the mischief in store.
One day Jackie is jolted when Clyde (Tony Curran), a figure from her past, shows up on her screen, apparently on parole from a ten-year prison sentence. Feverishly tracking Clyde's moves on her monitor, Jackie finally emerges from behind her screens to stalk him in the flesh, then seduces him in a scheme to exact revenge for a crime explained only in the third act. A final coda adds revelations that impel her, not altogether convincingly, to reverse course.
In the film's first half the action is minimal, taking the form of a doubled surveillance: The viewer studies Jackie's beaky, handsome profile, while she herself studies Clyde's moves across multiple screens. Arnold ups the suspense by slyly withholding the picture in the jigsaw puzzle--a tease that's subtly erotic--and recording the ominous ambient sound of Glasgow's backwaters. Her unflinching camera surveys a dystopian universe of sterile tower blocks, their elevators daubed in graffiti, their upper stories buffeted by Arctic updrafts. Sharing this wasteland with Clyde are a grungy, drug-addled pair (Martin Compston and Natalie Press) who consider him, all things being relative, a role model. Since Clyde is being stalked by Jackie, he's often shot from behind, wolfing down a meal, his quasi-animal aspect of a piece with the scabby diner.
Not least among Arnold's skills is to zap the viewer using minimal means. So when we at last get Clyde full-face--his mating manners are a tad rough, but the magnetism sizzles--it feels like a leap to a new dimension. Same for when Jackie emerges from behind her mosaic of screens, with their blur of scan lines, to confront Clyde in the flesh and engage him in a deadly dance of seduction. To call the sex scene graphic is the least of it; Arnold captures arousal cut with menace in a manner rarely examined. That Jackie is, in a sense, violating, Black Widow-style, the unsuspecting Clyde; that she's both turned on and simmering with hate, evokes a netherworld of eros that Dickie nails in a feat of acting.
Finally, Red Road expands what could have been just another revenge story by shifting the Big Brother motif to the center of the action. Snooping surfaces in many contemporary films, from Tony Scott's Enemy of the State to Michael Haneke's more recent Caché, to the forthcoming The Lives of Others from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, about a Stasi spy. Arnold, though, ups the ante, taking as a given that electronic surveillance has entered the cultural repertoire. Instead of going one-on-one with the "real" world, her heroine interacts with it from behind a bank of images, co-opting a tool for crime prevention to mount a personal vendetta. The film's subtext suggests that, like Jackie, we live at a double remove in a clammy climate of alienation: If the Other is unknowable, he becomes even more opaque when viewed through a blur of scan lines. In a triumph of filmmaking, Arnold has endowed a tale of female rage with disquieting social resonance.