What happens when the only person who makes you feel alive, is the very person you want dead?
Andrea Arnold’s first feature-length film is uncomfortably visceral, overwhelmingly raw and ultimately, a lesson in letting go. Red Road is the first film in the Advance Party series – a project created by Dogville director, Lars von Trier, in which three first-time directors have to create a film that needs to follow certain rules: filmed and set in Scotland, using the same cast and characters. Second in the series is Donkeys, directed by Morag McKinnon and Mikkel Nørgaard’s contribution is still yet to be made.
Arnold’s creation follows the life (if you can call it that) of Jackie, a CCTV operator. Jackie stares at TV monitors all day, because it means she doesn’t have to talk to anyone. It means she can live vicariously through other people’s lives and most importantly, block out her painful past. But, after recognising a man on the screen she’s all too familiar with, Jackie’s life takes a turn for the worst – or does it?
Characters long for human connection
Arnold is an expert at creating absorbing, atypical characters. She’s able to make them stick out like a sore thumb and blend into the background simultaneously – from troubled 15-year-old teen Mia, in Fish Tank to uninhibited Star in American Honey. And it’s no different with Jackie (played expertly by Kate Dickie).
Tortured by her past, Jackie has been on autopilot ever since, avoiding human connection and repressing any sign of something that could make her feel alive. Instead, she watches the people on the screens – envious and disgusted at the same time.
Through subtle glimpses (like the clenching of a fist), we see Jackie’s desires. In one particular viewing, Jackie spots a couple having sex behind a block of flats. Removed from romance and love, the couple frantically pull at zippers. But this raw display of animalistic emotion arouses Jackie (much to her annoyance), suggesting she wants to feel something. She wants to feel that passion and urgency. She wants human connection.
So when stalking, and eventually meeting up with, the killer of her husband and daughter, she’s utterly conflicted. She should hate this man, but anger and passion are one of the same aren’t they? Whether it’s love, hate or lust, he makes her feel something.
Similarly, Clyde (Tony Curran), is a fascinating character, who has things in common with Jackie – although his daughter isn’t dead, she has no idea who he is and wants nothing to do with him. This is what makes each scene with Clyde and Jackie electric. From telling her how much he wants to know what her ‘cunt tastes like’, or when Jackie confirms she ‘just wanted a shag’. Watching the pair alongside each other is a boiling pot of passion, hatred, loneliness and desire. And at some points, it’s difficult to tell who’s feeling what.
A voyeuristic journey
Arnold’s use of Dogme 95 style of filmmaking (a movement co-created by Advance Party creator, Lars von Trier), makes Red Road so convincing, charged and raw. By using natural light and sound, and avoiding props and extremity, we’re left with a film that focuses on powerful themes and acting – a return to the traditional.
By doing this, Arnold is able to show superbly the metaphorical abyss Jackie’s living in. She’s become so void of emotion, so numb, she’s rendered invisible. And as a result, the line between her work and home life begin to blur. She hides from others, sticking to the shadows when she’s walking, watching and observing everyone else like she’s still watching the monitors – a permanent fly on the wall.
She spots things others don’t, pays attention to occurrences others wouldn’t even notice, like the old, ill dog, who in a way mirrors Jackie’s feelings – sick and tired of life. Interestingly by the end, this dog is replaced by a young, healthy puppy, of which Jackie pets lovingly.
As well as Jackie, Arnold makes the viewer feel as if they’re watching CCTV cameras by using high-angled and extreme close-up shots throughout. A perfect example is when Jackie is in the lift with Stevie and April. It’s too close for comfort and encapsulates: 1, what it feels like to be in a lift (you can almost feel the warmth and smell the urine), and 2, what it feels like to be stared at and scrutinised – to be an outsider.
Jackie and Clyde’s sex scene is similar. It’s made all the more realistic and unrestrained due to the low angles and extreme close-ups of nudity as if you’re in the room with them. You can see, hear and feel the anger, loneliness, pain and overwhelming guilt from Jackie after she’s mentally and physically stripped bare.
“Don’t you ignore me”
Forced to confront repressed feelings by the very man who caused them, it’s Jackie’s first open display of emotion that encourages Clyde to apologise – confronting his own painful memories too. Credit to Kate and Tony here, as each look and movement is telling of their character’s uneasiness of being emotionally available. This, accompanied with Arnold’s use of bright daylight (while the rest of the film is naturally bleak and dull), suggests both are confronting their feelings and experiencing redemption and forgiveness, something they’ve wanted for a long time.
After watching Red Road, it’s not surprising Andrea Arnold’s filmography is so successful. The film paved the way for raw, honest portrayals of three-dimensional characters experiencing loss, pain, emptiness and guilt. We see this again in the merry band of misfits in American Honey and we see the pain and abandonment Mia feels in Fish Tank. Using the ‘back-to-basics’ style of filming, Arnold takes a simple story and creates an incredible, character-driven look at loss, love and human nature.