Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Film Review #126: Red Road
Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Kate Dickie, Tony Curran, Nathalie Press

In one quietly remarkable scene during writer-director Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, a professional watcher tracks a van across the largest city in Scotland. Glasgow is one of a number of European – and now US – cities to employ an Orwellian number of live-feed cameras to assist police in constant surveillance. Their CCTV system goes by the public name City Eye, suggesting the friendliness of some jaunty TV news show at a downtown farmers’ market on a Saturday morning. Jackie (Kate Dickie) is good at what she does, daily scrutinizing a bank of TV monitors covering “Division E,” an area along the city’s northern fringe that includes Red Road. Jumping from screen to screen, the van’s image travels across Jackie’s monitor bank with a peculiar urgency – it’s as if Jackie were running along a frozen river after a drowning man swept beneath the ice. When the van nears the edge of Division E, Jackie just runs down the hall and jumps on an adjacent sector’s bank of monitors.

City Eye HQ is a honeycomb of such dark cells, bunkers lit by their own banks of flickering screens – atomized images and intently staring, hunched watchers. Jackie sees a girl stabbed, collapsed on a curb, and sends an ambulance at once. Peering behind a shed overgrown with shrubbery, she determines the rough sex going on there is consensual. No corner’s out of sight, no matter how debris-scattered or abandoned. And early on, nonchalantly, establishing that the barrier between screen and life could be very permeable, Jackie walks those same streets, pausing and bending down to pet the dogs she recognizes from seeing their routine daily walks on-screen. These few curb-side encounters comprise the closest thing to warmth she allows herself.

That van that Jackie tracks, a commercial vehicle advertizing home locksmiths, carries a sandy-haired ex-con named Clyde (Tony Curran) and his former cell-mate, the mink-like Stevie (Martin Compston). Along with Stevie’s girlfriend April (Nathalie Press) they live in a high-rise complex known as the Red Road flats – the tallest residential towers in Europe when they were built, scarily bleak and monolithic, squalid, crime-ridden, and slated for demolition when Arnold filmed this movie. In one scene Stevie brings April a puppy and she scoops the can of dog food directly onto the kitchen floor. In another, when they’ve opened a window to enjoy the gale-force wind at their great height, he dangles April half out the window “for a joke.” Clyde has been working his way through the local women.

What is so edgy about Red Road is not its blunt depiction of sordid, overshadowed lives – though Arnold has a gift for the striking, economical detail – but its wholly convincing and unexpected redemption. It does not look like it will go that way for the longest time. With the forces of City Eye state apparatus arrayed against Red Road entropy, no one seems to feel any safer. Gradually, snatches of speech and photos in Jackie’s own meager, tidy flat – a back story as fragmented as City Eye’s portrait of Glasgow – tell us she lost her husband John and small daughter Sorcha four years ago. She now sleeps with an urn containing their ashes, withdrawn from her baffled, grieving in-laws and their challenging pet parrot who “doesn’t like strangers.” For some time we assume Clyde’s connection to their deaths must have been a violent attack – a murder or robbery or kidnapping. It seems incredible he doesn’t remember her, but she’ll remind him that he never looked at her in court.

Jackie’s pursuit of Clyde – first on the live-feed monitor, then in person and ever more intimate – seems tilted toward sexual obsession, then toward revenge. Red Road has understandably been likened to Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005) in both its menace and use of surveillance. And Red Road’s mounting dread combines with a filming style of gritty natural light and hand-held cameras – an environment in which things often end grimly. Instead, Arnold executes a startling hair-pin turn between Jackie and Clyde that never skids off-track into sentimentality and reveals the depths of regret each carries. It’s clear that in this entire city there is no other human to whom either can say what each must say to the other. The film ends with a lush long shot of a broad Glasgow boulevard – it comes as a small shock to realize this is the first whole image of the city encompassing any real horizon and vanishing point in the entire film.

Besides a slew of prizes in Scotland, Andrea Arnold won the 2006 Jury Prize at Cannes for Red Road, which had brief art-house play in the US before going to DVD earlier this month. Her first feature-length film, Red Road follows three previous shorts, including the arresting 2005 Oscar-winning Wasp – starring Nathalie Press, April in Red Road – which the DVD producers were wise enough to include on this disc. If Red Road reminds you of the Dogme-95 style of Danish director Lars von Trier (2003’s Dogville, better yet 1996’s Breaking the Waves, itself set in Scotland), it’s because it’s the first of three features by three directors in a joint project between Glasgow’s Sigma Films and Denmark’s Zentropa, proposed by Trier and executed by his producers, Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen. Advance Party is designed to share cast and characters, though each writer-director creates their own script. Meanwhile, let’s keep our eye on Arnold and her way with a story.

This review appeared at on 9/26/07;a shorter version appears in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 9/27.