*Warning this review contains spoilers which will ruin your experience of this film if you have not already seen it*
Red Road (dir Andrea Arnold, 2006) is the first part of a Lars Von Trier project called The Advance Party. Trier challenged three directors to create films with the same group of characters:
Red Road is aptly named as this is a tense journey for the characters and viewers. The film opens with the main character, Jackie (Kate Dickie), working as a CCTV operator in front of a wall of TV screens, showing various run down parts of Glasgow. She is following people’s lives and smiling as they play with their dogs or rock out listening to headphones whilst clean office blocks. These moments are small and mundane but they become important to her (and us) as she watches them on screen.
As the film goes on she becomes obsessed (or maybe “entranced”?) with Clyde (brilliantly played by Tony Curran) whom, we glean, has been freed from prison earlier than expected and is known to her. Jackie goes from observing Clyde on screens at work to stalking him in person and eventually to insinuating herself into his life. We don’t find out her motives until near the end of the film. Eventually we discover that Clyde, under the influence of drugs, plowed into a bus stop where Jackie’s husband and child were waiting. They were both killed instantly. Although this happened several years ago, Jackie still has their ashes in the house (we see her cuddling the urns under the duvet in one scene), which is causing distress to her in-laws who would also like some closure.
Jackie seems lonely from the outset and we quickly see her voyeurism go too far – this is symbolised by her standing next to one of the people she regularly notices on screen, a man with a sick bulldog, at the newsagent window. It seems that she has no real life of her own even though she is well-liked by colleagues and has a lover. She seems passive at first, largely avoiding emotional exchanges. Soon she proves to be incredibly ballsy though – lying to Stevie about how she met Clyde, turning up at the party in the flat uninvited and so on. We don’t see a clichéd powerless victim. Has she just reached a natural point of having nothing left to lose or are we just seeing her as her sense of boundaries become blurred, jolted by Clyde getting out of prison before she’d had chance to prepare (before justice was served)?
The style of photography and the editing enhances the sense of never fully being able to see the whole picture – we shadow Jackie through lots of claustrophobic close-ups, often in dark sets and sometimes out of focus. This makes for uneasy viewing. We are always off-balance, frustrated by trying to catch sight of more of the story. Even though we are very close to Jackie, we can’t follow her thought-processes and I can’t really understand her choice of revenge. The camera work is at times jerky, very documentary-style and some of the parts seem to have been played by non-actors. The only music is diegetic, which adds to the bleak realism of the film. The sense of Jackie moving on at the end of the film is enhanced by brighter scenes (similar to, but not as extreme as, Dolores Claiborne (dir Taylor Hackford, 1995)) and devices such the man she used to watch with the fat, sick bulldog now has a frisky new dog.
The scenery around the Red Road estate is well chosen – apart from the obvious litter and barbed wire, lack of trees etc. The terrain is very bumpy and all the buildings and shops facades are filmed from uncomfortable angles.
Tension is created as we see things from the intimacy of Jackie’s POV – Clyde is portrayed as a criminal, possibly dangerous and yet she takes great risks to get close to him. Our first sight of him is in a potential rape situation and in several frames he seems wild (carrying all the beer for the party) or predatory (waiting outside the school and approaching the teenage girl) or dodgy (the unbranded locksmiths van and raiding the skip). We go on the whole emotional journey with Jackie as the story unfolds, but soon we find ourselves seeing Clyde as charming, sexy and apparently keen to start a new life. This is a flipped version of our impression of Stevie – we see an increasing number of moments of him being unpredictable and frightening. Clyde is the one who gets Stevie under control during the pub brawl.
The film does not tell us what to think about the UK CCTV culture, the justice system, the false rape charge or Jackie taking matters into her own hands – there is no moral message about the state of our society. The surveillance is merely a device for telling the story and a metaphor for Jackie’s relationship with the world rather than being part of the story itself. She is disconnected from everything, including herself in a way. There are lots of indications of this in the film (eg waving at her aunt through the hatch at the wedding disco; sex with her lover is from behind and filmed through the dog safety mesh in his van).
The sex scene with Clyde is widely referred to by reviewers and on movie website message boards and it does seem to be pivotal. This is the moment we really start to like Clyde. He suddenly becomes a real person, not just an image on a CCTV screen or in our nervous imagination. I like the unpredictability of the sexual tension between them. We see strong indications that he is very interested in her too – the erotic obsession is on both sides.
There are some powerful moments where we learn much of the human story and the emotional impact of what has happened but with a very frugal use of dialogue:
Jackie says to Clyde: “You didn’t even look at me in court!”.
One of the most moving moments is when she stuffs baby clothes inside the jeans and jacket of her daughter and then hugs and sobs over this 3D facsimile of her dead child.
We learn that she cannot remember that her father-in-law Arnold has ever visited her house – he mentions a conversation about a plum tree, of which she has no recollection. This is a brilliant way to show the depth of her grief. Arnold has to pull hard to open a door we did not know was there and then we see him bathed in light before going into a garden she has neglected. When she calls to withdraw the rape charge she steps out into the garden – this is a symbol of her being the healing process.
Some commentators have said that we are kept guessing for too long and that it becomes a distraction from the art of the film. I would also argue that the “reveal” is not quite dramatic enough – I struggled with the accents in that scene and I am still not clear on how Stevie looking at the photo of Jackie’s child would make everything fall into place for him (haven’t we have been told earlier that Stevie knows nothing about Clyde’s previous life?).
It also bothered me that she excuses herself from work on the premise of not feeling well and then immediately goes to a pub that is being watched by her employer’s CCTV. She behaves suspiciously – looking at the ground to find a rock (an indication of how pre-meditated is her plan to frame Clyde for rape) – before going into the pub. When they leave Stevie and Clyde are in an apparent fight, which surely would have raised concerns back at the CCTV monitoring station?
I also found the part involving the rape accusation and then her rescinding this to be very unconvincing. There was no allusion to the fact that the police would have known there was a link between Jackie and Clyde and I think there would have been much more fall-out. My understanding is that it is quite difficult to stop these legal processes once they have been put in motion – especially for ex-cons.
After a confrontation, Jackie tells Clyde that his daughter visited the block of flats (which I thought was a bit too twee in the first place) and he asks how she knows that. This was another reminder that her voyeurism had gone too far. I felt slightly embarrassed for her, even though she is sharp enough in that moment to avoid having to confess everything to him. I found this part of the scene to be messy and I am not sure what the point of it was. To show that Jackie cares enough about Clyde to want him to reconnect with his child? Cycle of life, etc? Or maybe just part of the closure and an attempt to fix the disruption she had caused with the false rape charge.
Although I have these few minor gripes about this film, I felt it was a very authentic piece of storytelling and portrayal of a community. The slow pace did not bother me as there were enough powerful punches and a thrilling story to keep me very engaged. It is ultimately a story about guilt, forgiveness and closure and in that respect is very satisfying. There is no Hollywood ending and I am sure the subject matter and edginess is not to everyone’s taste but overall I would rate this film highly.
Notes for future research and further reflection
How exactly has the director succeeded in making us feel so close to Jackie? This is crucial – we have to care about her.
One theme is around how the observer may feel the impact of what they are seeing more powerfully than those being observed. Some reviews mentioned similarities here with The Conversation (dir Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) ; Blow Up (dir Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966); Rear Window (dir Alfred Hitchcock, 1954); Exotica (dir Atom Egoyan, 1994).
Clyde’s daughter as a device. What does this sub-plot reveal about him and about Jackie? We discover that Jackie was dismissive of her own daughter just before her death and that she feels pain and guilt over this.
Why is she hurriedly picking his belongings and looking at things in his room while he gets mugs and something to drink before the sex scene? Is this just a bit of cheap pulse-quickening drama or is she still undecided about her course of action? Did she already know exactly what she was going to do when she picked up the stone outside the pub?
Some notes on Lars von Trier
Two notable and recommended Dogme films are:
Italian for Beginners: http://www.imdb.co.uk/title/tt0243862/
The goal of the Dogme collective is to purify filmmaking by refusing expensive and spectacular special effects, post-production modifications and other technical gimmicks. The filmmakers concentrate on the story and the actors' performances. They believe this approach may better engage the audience, as they are not alienated or distracted by overproduction. To this end, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg produced ten rules to which any Dogme film must conform. These rules, referred to as the "Vow of Chastity," are as follows:
- Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
- The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
- The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
- The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
- Optical work and filters are forbidden.
- The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
- Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
- Genre movies are not acceptable.
- The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
- The director must not be credited.