We see you, voyeur. Behind a camera, at a peephole, stalking, brooding -- you're a metaphor for surveillance states, urban alienation, and lonely sensation. When we can see you, as in The Lives of Others and Rear Window, we identify with you, squirm in complicity, and gaze with our own dirty delight at your gazing. Even when we don't see you, as in Caché, we are forced to see the world through your cold gaze, as if you were an unforgiving eye from our conscience.
Red Road is the latest film to put us behind that peephole -- in this case, a closed-circuit TV (CCTV) screen. The first part of this Prix du Jury winner at Cannes takes place behind a whole bank of glowing monitors, each presenting the bleakest, greyest scenery imaginable -- the housing projects of Glasgow, Scotland.
Ensconced behind her screens, CCTV monitor and security guard Jackie (veteran television and theater actor Kate Dickie) seems a sad but benevolent presence. She sits with a shadowy smile, watching a stout woman ambling down the street, a man and his fat, wheezing bulldog, a dancing janitor. Jackie's face is all eyes -- haunted ones, at that. The only release from whatever pains her is this minimal contact, her protective and protected gaze.
Like the other films where voyeurism is the main victual, Red Road is almost too meta -- particularly given the circumstances of its conception. Director Andrea Arnold's debut feature is the first in a planned trilogy built around the same characters, to be portrayed by the same actors in the same setting. Two Danish filmmakers -- aided and abetted by spanky cinematrix Lars von Trier, he of controversial Breaking the Waves and Dogville fame -- came up with the "Advance Party" concept and auditioned different filmmakers for their project. Arnold was the first to take the bait, shooting in six weeks on digital format for under 1 million pounds, as the Danes had also stipulated.
Despite the contrivances behind its creation, Arnold has made a film that is wonderfully, and organically, disturbing -- thanks largely to the intensity of Dickie's performance. When the camera first settles on Jackie, she gives off the deadened chill of the deeply lonely -- grey affect, tortured eyes. She hovers uncomfortably on the edges of a wedding party and has joyless sex with a married co-worker. She lives behind the screens and behind the scenes, wrapped in a cocoon of unexplained sadness … until she recoils from the sight of a man on one of her screens. Gingery-haired, he grunts against a prostitute, and then vanishes, the screen capturing only a fox running across a vacant lot.
The sight of this mysterious man lures Jackie from behind her screens -- she moves from protective voyeurism straight into criminal stalking. As she begins to follow him, Jackie quickly loses the detachment that had provided her with a sense of invulnerable beneficence towards the landscape and the people she watched in her camera. Arnold captures the harshness of Glasgow's mean streets -- tagged up, broken down -- and weighs Jackie's entrances into this setting with a sense of increasing peril. Jackie clumsily follows her prey into a café, watches him work his rough charisma on a waitress … and then she begins to insinuate herself into his life in a way that seems more and more unhinged. Jackie inspires fear -- for what may happen to her, and for what she may do.
Arnold caps the coiling tension of her film with two bravura scenes, one at a party, and the other an explicit sexual encounter. Both are shot through with a sort of terrified eroticism. The sex scene manages not to be exploitative, although it will surely raise hackles for its portrayal of female rage and vulnerability, pleasure and predation. Partly shot through the strobing light of a knocked-over lamp, the encounter is explosive and utterly believable -- a marvel in a film that could have been so mannered in its execution.
With its tight-focus shots and grainy CCTV footage, Red Road is close and claustrophobic -- Arnold creates an impressively thick tension from very little dialogue and action in her film's first half. The film's denouement is somewhat of a let-down, however. After the opening, which manages to be both leisurely and taut, and the intensity of the middle section, the big reveal seems too rushed, and the hopeful ending is more easy than earned. Red Road intends to hit those big philosophical notions of forgiveness, redemption, and revenge, but it loses its impeccable rhythm in the end.
Third-act stumbles aside, Red Road is a purposeful new take on the old noir genre. Arnold presents a protagonist who is flawed and complex, the femme fatale and the haunted pursuer all in one. And this is all rendered without self-congratulatory signposts pointing out the cinematic or gender subversion. Jackie feels so deeply lived that watching her move from behind her screens and into the tangle of real life makes an engrossing encounter, not only with her character, but with the fears that keep us from doing the same.