I think the film reflects my relationship to Glasgow, which is kind of distant. But I did get to see it as an outsider. When you’re a tourist, you see things in a different way that people are not used to.— Andrea Arnold, Indiewire 11 April 2007
Jackie (Kate Dickie) doesn’t talk much. She spends most of her workdays seated before a bank of CCTV government surveillance monitors, her hand on a joystick. She’s watching out for crimes in an underclass section of Glasgow; when she sees someone errant or in trouble, she calls the police. Jackie wears a drab uniform and a tie, her focus is intent and fingers nimble on the keyboard that specifies which camera, angle, and camera distance appears on her primary monitor.
The first images in Red Road show what Jackie sees on an average sort of day. The image is grainy, figures are jumbled. Traffic passes, grainy and grey, umbrellas jostle. Jackie’s face probed in brief close-ups, looks weary and taut. The shot cuts to the sidewalk on her monitor, where she spots a man coaxing his aging bulldog to walk with him, a brief scene of patience and tender dedication that makes her smile, faintly. Each night she logs tapes into a locker, eats dinner alone, sometimes a game blares on the TV, the crowd sounds dull and familiar.
The first of three proposed films in a project by the Advance Party, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road introduces the characters who will also appear in the next two. Subsequent directors will work with the same actors and also set their stories in Scotland, part of a Dogme offshoot called the Advance Party, conceived by Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen (the “rules” include shooting in a digital format, in six weeks, within a £1m budget). Arnold (who won an Oscar for her 2003 short, Wasp) establishes a spare, tense precedent here, as her first feature slowly peels back the reasons for Jackie’s dejection.
At first, she appears at least vaguely self-destructive. Involved in a miserable affair with a married coworker, she looks utterly bored as they drive out to nowhere — his dog in tow — for a pint and chips, then a brief bit of intercourse in the front seat of his car. He moans for a few moments, then gets out of the car to zip his pants and call his dog. “See you in two weeks then,” the “lover” says as he drops her on the sidewalk near her home.
Jackie’s routine is broken when she spots Clyde (Tony Curran) on her monitor. He’s engaged in the sort of behavior she sees every day, sex in an alley, but Jackie’s riveted by his appearance: when she goes home and digs up a newspaper she has stored in her closet (headline: “Blackie Hill Man Gets 10 Years,” accompanied by Clyde’s photo), you get a nebulous sense of his import. Recently released, he’s moved into the Red Road project-style apartments, which you learn when Jackie leaves off tracking him by camera-and-joystick in order to follow him on foot. Her increasing determination to keep Clyde in sight leads her into his building, riding up in the elevator with a young couple, Stevie (Martin Compston) and April (Nathalie Press), who share Clyde’s flat. Unexpectedly, she walks into a party there, an assembly of underclass revelers dancing, drinking beer and liquor in plastic cups, finding a few hours respite with each other and loud music.
In the kitchen, Jackie pauses to chat with April, who’s been surprised by a present from Stevie, a puppy hidden in his jacket. Jackie watches as April forks some canned dog food onto the floor, the puppy scrabbling to eat, tail wagging. Asked whether Stevie’s her boyfriend, April shrugs, “He’s sweet,” then blows a couple of smoke rings. On the dance floor a few minutes later, they kiss and smile, tender and genuine-seeming, as Jackie observes. At the same time, she’s observed by Clyde, whose invitation to dance appears to be part seduction, part inspection. For a moment, they appear tentative and also intimate, each scoping the other; once his hand slides to her bottom, she bolts, the camera close and fish-eyed as she lurches into the elevator, presses the first-floor button, and vomits.
The relationship between Jackie and Clyde is increasingly fraught, as she pursues him while looking simultaneously reviled. When Jackie sees Clyde enter a pub on her monitor, she asks a colleague to fill in for her, then shows up inside the bar. Clyde’s version of seduction speaks to his experience: prompting her to ask him what he’s been “thinking,” he reveals, “I’ve been wondering what your cunt tastes like. Are you shocked?” she sighs, “No, nothing much shocks me.” The explicit representation of their eventual assignation stirred controversy at Cannes (where it went on to win the Jury Prize), but in producing such visceral discomfort (a familiar strategy in Dogme films, after all), it asks viewers to share in Jackie’s own overwhelming sense of dislocation and despair.
Her emotional experience is rendered in shadows and fragments, as her acute vision is increasingly compromised by her narrowing focus, her descent into her own disturbing desire. If the film’s resolution feels contrived, the pain it exposes remains effectively raw. Precisely because she’s trained to watch, Jackie knows how to position herself for surveillance cameras and legal reports in order to tell a story. In Red Road, Jackie’s story extends beyond her control, no matter what she sees, thinks she sees, or tries to see. In that, at least, her vision is much like yours.