Eye on the Prizeby Tessa DeCarlo
Red Road, dir: Andrea Arnold
Red Road starts off like a revenge thriller with a sophisticated visual style. Jackie (Kate Dickie), wearing the butch shirt-and-tie uniform of law enforcement, sits in a dark room in front of a huge bank of television screens, her eyes scanning an endless array of nothing in particular. The surveillance cameras she’s monitoring provide pictures but no sound, and indeed there’s not much sound in the movie; instead of the mood-setting scare music of the typical thriller, Red Road is wrapped in the anonymous shuffle of ambient noise.
The quietude of Into Great Silence, a documentary about a monastery of cloistered ascetics, emphasizes the monks’ solitude and inwardness. The silence of Red Road tells us something similar about Jackie. We recognize that Jackie’s withdrawal from the things of this world is defensive rather than ecstatic, a defeat rather than a calling.
Jackie clicks the keyboard, twiddles the joystick, and zeroes in on first this passerby, then that sinister parking lot. She works for an agency called City Eye that monitors the input from cameras stationed all over Glasgow. Her job is to call the authorities when trouble’s brewing and make a tape record of malefactors caught in the act.
Most of the time, however, she’s watching over the mundane: people doing their shopping, kids goofing around, a man walking his dog, a young woman dancing to the music on her headphones as she vacuums an office. Just how much Jackie can see—how quickly her cameras can follow a target from one screen to the next, how much detail she can pull in when she clicks into close-up, how omnipresent the cameras are—makes this seem like science fiction. But this future that has already arrived is once alarming and reassuring.
The world Jackie observes is grimy Glasgow at its grimiest, and it’s a safe bet the Glasgow Tourism Board didn’t subsidize this movie. Writer and director Andrea Arnold uses the Scottish city’s housing projects, garbage-strewn vacant lots, feral dogs and dilapidated commercial districts, shot with a surveillance camera’s jagged movements and vertiginous shifts in resolution, to create a perversely beautiful series of images that evoke contemporary art’s relish for ugliness.
Our relation to Jackie mirrors hers to the people she scrutinizes every day: we can see what she’s doing, but we don’t know who she is and what her motives are. She wears a wedding band but lives alone. There once was a child, but now there’s none. She’s in conflict of some kind with her in-laws. She’s having a bleak and unsatisfying affair with a married co-worker that, like so much else in her life, is conducted in furtive silence.
One day, as she watches a couple do the Glasgow nasty up against a graffiti-spattered wall, her eyes widen—there’s something about the male half of the couple she recognizes. She quickly becomes obsessed with this man, Clyde (Tony Curran), whom we learn just got out of prison. Over Jackie’s shoulder we watch him walking in and out of his new flat in a towering public housing block on Red Road, furnishing it out of dumpsters, visiting the local pub. His building’s Bauhaus brutalist architecture, with it ranks of windows, echoes the rows of screens surrounding Jackie; these are both structures aimed at controlling people by reducing them to manageable units.
Jackie’s obsession with Clyde shows that some aspects of our lives refuse to be neatly managed. That Jackie wants some sort of revenge against this man is clear; what else she wants remains cloudy, to us and to her as well.
Her pursuit of this mysterious stranger soon moves from virtual to real as she follows him on the street and into his apartment. Scenes we’ve witnessed on Jackie’s screens go from virtual to, well, less virtual, as Jackie walks the same streets and alleys we’ve seen her watching. Even though we’re experiencing that shift at second hand, it’s exhilirating.
All film genres have their rules, and that includes art movies. Despair, poverty, the downbeat epiphany—these are to art cinema what horses are to Westerns. The squalor of Glasgow in general and of Clyde’s apartment in particular, where a dog is fed by scraping its food out onto the floor; the explicit but plot-furthering sex; and the stately pace at which the movie’s mysteries unfold all make clear that Arnold, in her feature debut, is aiming squarely at the art-house audience, and more power to her. But Red Road’s gratifyingly evolved yet not truly successful ending indicates that Arnold was perhaps too constrained by the conventions of the form. Too bad she didn’t throw off the shackles of not only Hollywood but indie-hood as well.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to see this movie on the big screen. One is its visual snap—this is art with a plot. Another is its clever use of a sick bulldog, the yowling foxes that invest the Glasgow slums, and a series of other canine players to underline the film’s themes. Two more are the performances Arnold drew from her lead players. Dickie and Curran both have real people’s faces and real acting chops; they can look plain, even ugly, one moment, lovely the next. Dickie keeps us guessing about whether Jackie is pursuing a desperate game of vengeance or self-destruction; Curran seems plausible as a dangerous predator one moment, a tortured but ultimately decent bloke the next.
Last but not least, Red Road is part of a filmmaking scheme, the grandly named Advance Party Concept, whose later chapters promise to be interesting, though whether as triumphs or failures remains to be seen. Arnold and two other directors agreed to develop and film scripts using an assigned setting, Scotland, and an assigned group of characters, played by the same actors. Each director was allowed to elaborate on the characters’ back stories, but only within the parameters set by the previous installment. So while each movie has to be able to stand on its own, it also has to link up to its predecessors.
Red Road is the first in the series; the remaining two, by Scottish director Morag Mackinnon and Denmark’s Mikkel Norgaard, will be along in the next year or so. Whether or not they prove able to pull off this peculiar hat trick, their movies will be a welcome chance to watch Dickie and Curran shape-shift under the camera’s scrutiny once again.
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.