After taking home the Best Live Action Short Film Oscar in 2005 for Wasp, Andrea Arnold made her stunningly assured feature film debut with Red Road, another grim, realistic portrait of unfortunate souls. Fair warning: this is definitely not a feel-good movie. However, if you’re in the mood for something dark, sad and challenging, you could scarcely do better.
Jackie (Kate Dickie) is a single woman working as a closed-circuit surveillance operator in Glasgow, Scotland, where there are apparently cameras on nearly every street corner. Jackie’s rather creepy and mostly dull job is to watch the monitors and report any criminal acts or emergencies to the proper authorities. For a good portion of the film’s beginning, we are thrust into the tediousness of Jackie’s everyday life with little dialogue and no exposition, a refreshing departure from the average movie’s need to explain everything right away. Red Road has rightly been compared to the work of Michael Haneke in this regard, and the element of voyeurism at work here especially recalls two of his best films – Funny Games and Cache – but Arnold has more empathy for her characters and, seemingly, less nihilism in her heart than the great and revered Austrian filmmaker.
The inciting incident of Jackie’s story comes when she glimpses the face of Clyde (Tony Curran), a man who has apparently wronged her in the past, for which mysterious act he has been imprisoned until now. After doing a bit of research, Jackie finds that Clyde has been released early and is now living on the titular “Red Road,” which houses a preponderance of ex-cons looking for a second chance. The idea of redemption for past wrongs is, in fact, the central theme of the film, along with the necessity of moving forward in life, as beautifully illustrated in the final scene.
As the film progresses, though, Arnold wisely leaves the audience guessing as to the exact nature of its protagonists’ shared history. Jackie becomes immediately obsessed with Clyde, to the point that she neglects her duties on the job in order to stalk him from afar, leading to a violent attack she might have prevented if not preoccupied. At first, the red herring we are given to believe is that perhaps Clyde raped Jackie at some point, but as they begin to actually interact in person, he shows no signs of recognizing or remembering her. This central mystery unfolds perfectly, with just the right amount of intrigue to hold the audience in suspense without ever resorting to predictable cliches.
Red Road is truly a remarkable and complex film that eschews easy black-and-white morality in favor of a more nuanced and intelligent approach to its characters and story. When Clyde’s past offense is finally revealed, it is suitably awful and impossible for Jackie to ever completely forgive, yet he is never made out to be a simple villain; likewise, while Jackie has every right to be as self-destructively angry and vengeful as she is, we are never invited to view her as a saint, or her mission as a morally righteous one. The result is a bold and uncompromising film that may not be for everyone, but is nonetheless one of the very best debut features of the past decade.
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