October 11, 2007

Red Road: An assured feature debut


Reviewer: Dylan de Thomas
Rating (out of 5): ****

Red Road, writer-Director Andrea Arnold's notably assured feature debut (and winner of a jury prize at Cannes), tells a spare and haunting mystery about a Glasgow woman's growing obsession with a shadowy figure from her past. To give more information seems frankly unfair, with the movie doling out bits of information as though a precious commodity and the growing sense of dread building to a singular climax.

We first meet the protagonist, Jackie (in a stunningly honest performance by Kate Dickie), watching a bank of video screens with feeds coming from municipal surveillance cameras that watch over the city. She's looking for people in trouble, crimes in progress, when she finds someone that she clearly recognizes, though we have no idea why. From there, the movie becomes a genuine thriller, though one that goes in directions the genre rarely sees.

The film is thoroughly transporting, not always the case with other spare, musically bereft films of its Danish ilk -- Red Road was made as part of a Danish-Scottish initiative called the Advance Party, an offshoot of the aforementioned Danish film movement, Dogme 95 (a movement I'm loathe to mention as I know how its very name can sometimes equal dull and humorlessness). As is that movement's stated goal, Arnold's film is filled with strong, authentic, naturalistic performances from all involved and, while the hand-held aesthetic is there for a sense of realism, cinematographer Robbie Ryan has a terrific eye for framing, finding some arresting images on what feels like the fly.

Even in the simply-structured scenes at her job - with Jackie focusing a public camera on some guy with a sick dog - are masterfully directed and acted; one misstep and you'd find yourself in Sliver ("you like to watch, don't you?") territory. But Arnold avoids those pitfalls of simplistic voyeurism and instead finds a way deep inside her characters.

Several times since watching the film I wondered about how the subject matter would be typically handled domestically - not to trash our own beloved industry - with clear delineations of good and evil, with the villain writ large and the heroine held to a near-martyr status. But in Red Road Arnold gives us a brutally honest portrait of the face of grief in the aftermath of tragedy.

At times the film feels as if it would deserve a spot on the Onion's Not Again: 24 Great Films Too Painful To Watch Twice list; while I'm truly glad to have experienced this powerfully intimate film, I don't know if I want to invite it over to dinner again any time soon.

Also included on the disc is Wasp, Arnold's Academy Award-winning short film, a riveting, grim piece about a poor single mother with four kids living in public housing and making questionable decisions to get some desperately-wanted sexual attention.

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Posted by cphillips at October 11, 2007 2:06 PM