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Red Road

Red Road

Red Road, the first feature film by the talented Andrea Arnold which won the Camera d'Or, the prize for the best first film, at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is set in the world of surveillance.

Its setting focuses on a single road in Glasgow–the “Red Road” of the title. Its protagonist is Jackie, played by Kate Dickie, who works as a CCTV operator. This means that she sits in front of a dozen or more TV screens, each picking up signals from a camera mounted at an intersection, facing a housing project, surveying the “Red Road.” As the operator, she has the power to zoom in, to move the camera remotely, to zero in on anything unusual, potentially threatening, and to then dispatch the police.

Andrea Arnold depicts this world of surveillance in all its technological boredom and its creepy peeping-Tom atmosphere. Jackie's life is filled with monotony. At first we think this is burn-out from her job of watching unknown strangers pass in front of cameras, unsuspecting of being watched. Then we realize that a personal tragedy has left Jackie emotionally numb.

Suddenly, Jackie's life as a monitor of the lives of other people crosses over into the personal. A man, played by Tony Curran, appears on Jackie's monitor. That man has a connection to her past. Breaking all the rules, crossing all the boundaries between the watcher and the watched, Jackie decides to confront him. She crosses the thin line separating those who watch fate play itself out to those who intervene and try to change its direction.

What makes all this compelling is not just the bland, Antonioni-esque landscape of Glasgow where the film was shot, or the naturalistic acting, or the voyeuristic framework which envelops the film. Arnold is smart enough to underlay the motives of its characters with their pent-up anxieties, frustrated sexuality and fear.

The man she identifies on the closed circuit TV screen is an ex-convict named Clyde, who is at the center of the destruction of Jackie's family. Jackie lost both her husband and her child – killed by an out-of-control automobile on Red Road.

Jackie begins to stalk Clyde, using the surveillance equipment at her disposal at work to keep track of his whereabouts. She becomes the aggressor. We don't know the full extent of her motivations, but we know the strength of her intent. She contrives to meet him, intrudes into his feeble attempt to re-construct his life, engages in graphically-depicted sex with him, and then – in a stunning moment – returns to her quest for revenge.

Andrea Arnold, who won an Academy Award for her short film, The Wasp, gets first-rate performances from her actors. As Jackie, Kate Dickie is a tightly-wound package of pain, anger and lust and Tony Curran as Clyde, the burly ex-convict, an equally wound-up reservoir of unexpressed emotion.

The perverse psycho-sexual dilemma served up by the Red Road is this: Jackie and Clyde, the odd characters at the opposing ends of the emotional scale, framed by their capacity to hurt each other and destroy each other's lives, are also tightly connected to each other by their guilt, their sexual attraction for each other, amplified by their pain.

Red Road is not an easy film. It is all the more provocative because the point of view, and the locus for our empathetic connection to the characters is forced to shift. Who is the sympathetic character? Jackie, the greaving mother, or Clyde, the criminal recently released from prison trying to put his life together whose privacy is brutally violated? In this world of surveillance, where do people's lives intersect and how is individuality preserved? What are the moral boundaries?

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