VIDEO: Watch the trailer for Red Road
We’ve come a long way from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red (1994), in which a retired judge falls into disgrace for listening in on his neighbors. Now, spying on citizens is a virtue, no more so than in Britain, where it’s estimated that the average person appears on camera some 300 times a day. Andrea Arnold’s first feature bridges that gap with breathtaking clarity and skill, illuminating a world where even isolation has lost all dignity and humanity, where making contact can come about only through obsession, degradation, and violence. How strange that the film is also such an uplifting affirmation of courage and desire.
Spying is business as usual for Jackie (Kate Dickie, feral in her sealed intensity), a Glasgow police officer assigned to CCTV, when she checks into a dark room filled with banks of dozens of TV monitors. Bathed in the dead glow of images from both tony and terrible neighborhoods, Jackie looks more like a weary, faintly mousy bureaucrat than a sinister agent of totalitarianism. Not only is spying for her and her colleagues just a job, it also appears to be benign, even maternal in its function. She takes interest in some of the regulars she sees, like a man who’s attentive to his ailing dog. She smiles at people who’re caught being themselves.
And she sits up and takes notice when a down-and-out young woman stumbles through back alleys pursued by a yabbo. No problem here, just a quick call to send officers to the rescue. But she’s misread the situation: the woman is a prostitute, the man a client. False alarm.
Or is it? Magnified in a Blow Up–like sequence, the pixeled figure stirs something terrible in her memory or her imagination. The man, we learn as she bends the rules with surprisingly little resistance from her department, is named Clyde. He’s an ex-con, but his crime is unmentioned. Was she a victim? Is she projecting her own masochism, sadism, or lust onto a poor schmuck?
It’s not that Clyde is unattractive — as played by Tony Curran, he has the ginger-haired virility of a young, seedy Kirk Douglas. He’s gross and direct in his appetites but naked in his pitifulness; fresh from being locked up himself, he tries to make some money by driving a van with the word “locksmith” and a phone number painted on the side. The women in Red Road seem to like him, and when Jackie — “undercover,” in tight jeans and a leather jacket — starts to flirt with him, he doesn’t seem a bit surprised.
Neither does Jackie. From the moment she locks onto Clyde, no doubts about her purpose or her plan crack through her nervously calculating demeanor. Dementia, perhaps, but never a second thought. So what was Clyde’s crime? What is Jackie’s connection? Is it real or fantasized? These mysteries propel the film, but they’re also irrelevant, much like the arbitrary rules about character and setting established by the Advance Party Concept, the Dogme-derived group producing Arnold’s film and four other related projects. The set-up seems more like a workshop exercise than the conceptual structure linking, for example, Kieslowski’s “Trois Couleurs” trilogy and The Decalogue.
Arnold, however, uses this artificial structure to sharpen her focus on the desperate, primitive emotions of lust and loss throbbing behind the spectral surveillance images. In a world where contact and betrayal converge, where public and private are the same and nothing, redemption can start with a TV screen.