Two paths cross in British director Andrea Arnold‘s debut feature “Red Road” – not in the story, but in the story mechanics. There’s a tale of a woman, Jackie (Kate Dickie), confronted with the appearance of a harbinger of destruction from her past, Clyde (Tony Curran). And there’s the manner in which this potentially combustive situation unfolds: Jackie is a CCTV security operator who spots Clyde on her monitors and then proceeds to spy on him with the advantage of the technology at her disposal. At once universal and unmistakably modern, “Red Road” combines elements of both no-nonsense realism and Foucaultian paranoia to produce a unique, not soon forgettable drama.
Arnold starts off layering eerie hums and drones over scenes of Jackie playing Big Brother, and then – once the film veers away from Cronenberg territory, focusing on the drudgery of working class Glasgow instead of the fantastic properties of our surveillance society – immerses the audience in the less ominous but more suspenseful ambient sounds of overcast city streets and anonymous, low-rent apartments that accompany Jackie’s obsessive pursuit. Jackie, played with unpredictable nervous shyness by Dickie, carries on a soulless affair with a married co-worker and avoids contact with the world (in this sense her voyeuristic job is clearly symbolic) until Clyde comes back. Or else Jackie lets him back. Something obviously happened between them in the past for which Jackie seeks retribution or closure, and Arnold holds out on Jackie’s motivations for an ending sure to arouse controversy, either for its seeming contrived placement or else its portrayal of faked victimization.
Taking a step back, more concentration should be paid to the film’s slow-building trap. “Red Road” isn’t as assured as the Dardenne Brothers‘ “The Son,” but Arnold increases its stalker suspense while keeping an eye on moral consequences, intra-character tension, and the social determinism of its surroundings. Unavoidable flaws are thankfully downplayed: while its surprises can’t entirely distract from a rather clear trajectory (the feeling that we know where we’re headed from the opening frame is confirmed to no disappointing effect), the actors flesh out their characters (Dickie and Curran’s pas de deux of seduction is a marvel of palpable disgust and attraction) and Arnold stays faithful to the proletariat heart of her material enough to make “Red Road” convincing and powerful.
“Red Road” is the first release under the banner of the Advance Party, a project conceived by Lars von Trier, where characters created by Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen are played by the same actors in entirely different films directed by different filmmakers. Trier’s name in conjunction with a set of experimental rules often overshadows the project itself, but in this case “Red Road” transcends any possible confines: this is Arnold’s film, and it bears the mark of a director possessing her own vision.