Review: Andrea Arnold’s “Red Road”


Andrea Arnold’s debut film Red Road is a fascinating cinematic mélange: equal parts Rear Window and Blow-Up, updated with evocations of post-9/11 surveillance and filmed using the techniques of Dogma-style direct cinema. Red Road was the first film of the “Advance Party Concept,” conceived by Lars von Trier’s Dogma cohorts Lone Sherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, which consisted of three films by three different directors set in Scotland using the same set of characters. Red Road, which won the Grand Prix du Jury (third place) Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, is a moody and often disturbing film that got this endeavor off to a very strong start.

Jackie (Kate Dickie) is a uniformed operator at a closed-circuit surveillance firm hired to watch the Red Road housing projects, a litter-strewn and graffiti-covered residence which gives the film its name. She spends her workday seated in front of a bank of monitors, watching the citizens’ daily lives. This is the ultimate reality television, her professional voyeurism highlighting the drabness of her own life. She lives alone in a small, cheerless apartment. Her face is drawn and hardened, and she seems to experience little joy. She carries on a desultory affair with a married coworker, their sexual contact relegated to quickies inside the company van. We are given little backstory to her character, which has the effect of drawing us in. One day Jackie watches a man and a woman have sex on her cameras. Zooming in on the action, she treats this occurrence as a private porno movie, unzipping her pants. She is stopped short when she recognizes the man on the monitor.

The man is Clyde (Tony Curran), an ex-con who has a connection to Jackie’s past. The film gains its intensity from its teasing misdirection about the nature of this connection. Jackie frantically calls her lawyer, and finds out Clyde has been released early from prison for good behavior. The immediate conclusion one draws is that Clyde has raped her, and at first all indications seem to point to this explanation. However, we are forced to question this, and the film takes many twists and turns as we understand that all is not what it seems.

Jackie begins shadowing this mysterious (to us) person, watching his every move on the monitors and leaving work to follow him on the street. Her obsession grows to such an extent that she neglects her work, the most disturbing instance concerning a young girl stabbed without her noticing because she is so distracted by watching Clyde. Jackie insinuates herself into Clyde’s existence, slipping into his apartment building and crashing a party he is throwing for his friends. Clyde is immediately attracted to Jackie and begins slow dancing with her, until she breaks away from him and runs out of the apartment. Clyde suspects that he may have known her before, but can’t recall where. Jackie also gets close to Clyde’s roommates Stevie (Martin Compton) and April (Natalie Press). The relationship between these two adds another intriguing layer to the proceedings.

Arnold’s film is an intense modern revenge tragedy that, while somewhat overpraised, nevertheless is a very strong work that explores issues of modern-day surveillance and the complex interplay of rage and desire. The film features impressive camerawork from cinematographer Robbie Ryan which effectively conveys the paranoia and melancholy of the piece. Kate Dickie is especially fine in her first film role, beautifully registering the mysteries and transformations of her character.