"Red Road": Rear Window on the Gritty Streets of Glasgow By Sheila Johnston
“This is the dog’s bollocks!” pronounced Andrea Arnold famously in her acceptance speech at the 2005 Oscars, where her third live-action short film, Wasp, won an Academy Award. For non-Brits — and non-Londoners — it should be explained that the dog’s bollocks are on the whole an excellent thing to be (much what an American might call, more decorously, the cat’s pyjamas).
By then Arnold had already come a long way from her roots in a run-down working-class housing estate in South East London, and from her early career as a children’s television presenter. After three short films, Milk, Dog and Wasp, she has now made her feature debut with Red Road (the director clearly likes terse, monosyllabic titles). This transition is not the cinch it’s often assumed to be: though regarded as a training ground, shorts require very different storytelling skills from full-length films and many a director who has shone in the first arena founders in the second. This is not, however, the case with Red Road.
Set in Glasgow, Scotland, it centres on Jackie (Kate Dickie), a lonely and withdrawn CCTV operator who spends her days and nights before a vast bank of monitors trained on some of the city’s meanest streets, liaising with the police to combat crime. She’s a high-tech version of James Stewart’s character in Rear Window — part voyeur, part guardian angel — operating in a thoroughly 21st century Big Brother world in which 24-hour public surveillance has become a fine art.
Jackie radiates the mysterious aura of a painful past which, slowly, is uncovered. One day she spots a man she recognises, a man connected with — and responsible for — a traumatic event. She begins to stalk him, first on the monitors, then on the streets and eventually to the grim high-rise block of flats — called Red Road — where he lives.
One does not wish to reveal too much of the story, since part of Red Road’s vice-like grip comes from the skill with which Arnold withholds, then slowly metes out narrative information. Suffice it to say that the meeting of stalker and prey is the climax and also the resolution of the film. This encounter — which is also a sexual one, shot by the eerie light of a lava lamp — is a combustible mix of emotions: anger, desire, danger and tenderness. It’s an electric scene, in part because of the erotic charge carried by the male character. Reminiscent of Jane Campion’s In The Cut or Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, it could, surely, have only come from a female director.
A subsequent plot development takes Red Road into melodrama and implausibility, a wrong turning from which the film recovers, though only just. And certain of its themes, to do with overcoming grief and loss, achieving emotional closure and making a new start, are rather trite ones which would congeal into schmaltz in a different movie. If they emerge as more than clichés here, it’s thanks to Arnold’s keen sense of atmosphere, detail and place, a talent already well in evidence in her short films.
As the title suggests, Red Road is as much about its milieu as about the people in it. In fact, certain subplots drift out of focus at times, although this could be down to the project’s unusual origins: it’s the first — and so far only — instalment of a trilogy initiated at Zentropa, in which three first-time directors are to make films using the same set of characters.
In Red Road, the stark high-rise block of flats, dramatically photographed, emerges as a potent character in its own right. Foxes rove, keening, through this urban jungle; the wind howls like a primeval force (the film’s sound design is brilliant, its dialogue spare and its music minimal to the point of non-existence). People flicker, grey ghosts, across the video screens. In the bright Miami sunshine, it all appears stranger and more unsettling than just about anything else on view in the film festival.