May 7, 2007

Red Road (Arnold, 2006)

Andrea Arnold’s feature length directorial debut is an unsettling invitation to observe. Specifically, we are asked to observe Jackie, a lonely CCTV operator who spends her days in front of a wall of television monitors observing the unsuspecting citizens of Glasgow, Scotland as they go about their daily lives. Jackie knows nothing of those she observes, and appropriately, we know tantalizingly little about Jackie. We know only that she hides a tragic past, and that she has distanced herself from those close to her, but apart from that, Arnold reveals nothing. And so when Jackie spies a man from her past on one of her monitors and begins obsessing over him, we immediately prepare ourselves for the mystery that is certain to come.

With Red Road, Arnold has crafted a protean work that chips away and chips away at itself and its audience with an ice-cold, deliberate manner, until all that remains is raw, naked emotion. Jackie’s pursuit of the mysterious man sets the film off in the direction of a Haneke-esque thriller and DP Robbie Ryan’s lingering camera deftly mimics the furtive invasiveness of CCTV cameras, providing a suitable atmosphere of dread. But just as we think we have a handle on the film, the pervasive sense of real-world menace, so tangible in the film’s first two-thirds, gives way to a complex, challenging humanism, and suddenly Red Road isn’t quite as allied with the sensibilities of a Michael Haneke film as it may have initially seemed.

Arnold is only concerned with the central mystery of the plot insofar as it is a mechanism used to keep the audience on unstable ground. She is less concerned with the big reveal (who is the man and why does Jackie seek him out?) than she is with the consequences of the reveal, the questions that remain in its aftermath. For although Red Road wears the clothes of a thriller (and wears them exceedingly well), it is ultimately a portrait of guilt and reconciliation, a study of two damaged souls bathed in the beautiful ugliness of the real world. Only in its final scenes, which feel emotionally unfaithful and incongruous, does the film falter.

*Red Road is the first film in a three-film concept called Advance Party. All of the Advance Party films must use characters conceived by Danish filmmakers Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, and must also be set in Scotland.

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