May 26, 2009

Red Road (2006)


Director: Andrea Arnold

113 min


Glasgow, the present day. Jackie, a CCTV operator, observes life through a wall of cameras, including a man walking his dog and a woman working in a laundrette. She meets with colleagues in the pub and has fortnightly sex with a married colleague although she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. Jackie attends a relatives wedding but she is distant towards an older couple; the husband remembers Jackie having longer hair. Jackie leaves shortly after. When Jackie notices a woman being pursued by a man, she is about the call the police, fearing a sexual assault. It is a consensual act but Jackie recognises the man involved, who is called Clyde Henderson.

Clyde was sentenced to ten years in jail but has been released for good behaviour. Jackie encourages surveillance at the Red Road flats where Clyde lives. Whilst distracted watching Clyde, a young girl is stabbed on Jackie’s watch. Jackie follows Clyde to a café and then visits a party being held at Clyde’s flat. Clyde thinks they’ve met before but isn’t sure where. Jackie and Clyde dance before she pulls away and leaves. Stevie, who’s staying with Clyde, had stolen Jackie’s purse so she returns to claim it back. Jackie and Clyde make love. In the bathroom, Jackie, who had kept the condom, attempts to smear herself with Clyde’s semen. She then accuses Clyde of rape. Stevie breaks into Jackie’s for an explanation – Clyde killed her husband and daughter. Jackie drops the charges and confronts Clyde, telling him what he’d done to her. They retrace the accident and Jackie makes up with her parents in law.


Produced under the auspices of the Zentropa Studios, ‘Red Road’ is very much Dogme ’95 goes abroad and part of the Advance Party, a trilogy of films set in Scotland that uses the same cast and characters and made by first time directors. The roots of this project might have been in ‘Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself’ (2002), a Scottish-Danish co-production, directed by Lone Scherfig, who was a founding member of the Advance Party. Although some have questioned the credibility of the entire Dogme ’95 agenda, claiming it to be nothing more than a publicity stunt that a rigorous set of criteria for film making, ‘Red Road’ at least reinvigorates the tradition of British arthouse and social realist film making, challenging the current consensus towards lowest common denominator films with an eye on the box office.

‘Red Road’ takes a simple premise; a woman dealing with life after the death of her husband and child and makes the most of it. Arnold’s skill is delaying the full revelation of the facts, gradually letting them slip and teasing the audience with small moments that might or might not be significant. There’s the distant relationship with what turns out to ber her husband’s parents, with whom she barely communicates and from Alfred’s nostalgic memories, we sense this relationship has been troubled for a while. There’s hints about if only they had buried…..someone, but we’re never sure exactly who? Only in the final scenes are we completely aware of Jackie’s past and what her relationship with Clyde is (although the first time we see, or should that be Jackie sees Clyde, we know it’s something important by the flicker of fear and recognition), so we spend most of the film speculating and Arnold ensures that ‘Red Road’ remains a tense and gripping thriller at all times.

There’s a certain deliberate irony in having Jackie’s CCTV operator keep a close eye on the lives of everyone who falls inside her radar yet never being able to keep an eye on her own. Jackie’s life has effectively frozen since her tragedy, demonstrated by the incredibly mechanical sex she has with a colleague. Maybe she’s deliberately compensating for the fact that she’s been unable to move on? Jackie has a voyeur’s eye, aware of the foibles of those she regularly watches over, even trying to intervene when necessary. Although it’s the one time that she really tries to intervene that she’s forced to confront her past – had Clyde’s incident been completely innocuous, it’s possible she would never have noticed him. As soon as she notices Clyde though, the power and responsibility afforded to her as a CCTV operator is exploited to the full, tracking his every movement. Her obsession grows to the extent that she misses a stabbing, from which the girl barely survives.

Much more disturbing is how Jackie behaves when she decides to confront Clyde, using the one resource she genuinely has – her body. Clyde lets her know in no uncertain terms that he desires her and she acquiesces because that’s the sole means she has of getting her revenge. Maybe it’s slightly contrived how the apparently wonderful sex she has with Clyde contrasts with that of her colleague, although maybe it’s meant to be more cathartic than really enjoyable. However, it’s the minutes after they’d made love that are the most alarming of all when Jackie deliberately and methodically attempts to make it look as if Clyde has raped her. Arnold doesn’t shy away from the details, scraping the semen from the condom, inflicting a blow to one’s face to make her accusation look plausible.

The change of tone in the final moments when Jackie confronts Clyde when he’s been released after she dropped the rape charges is welcome and slightly unexpected. We learn more about the incident – a drug-fuelled car crash, but also that Jackie had argued with her family before they left the house for the last time. So it’s less about punishing Clyde then punishing herself for her last moments with her family. After an hour and a half or so of dark, tense film making, this cathartic coda strikes a nice balance as Jackie retraces the accident and makes amends with her parents in law. ‘Red Road’, with its strong performances and largely impressive and expressive cinematography is one of the strongest British features of recent years and hints at Arnold’s rich potential as a film maker, which might have come to fruition at Cannes 2009, with ‘Fish Tank’, which was mostly acclaimed by resident critics.


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