I’ve been sounding people out about my treatment of RED ROAD (in brief, watching it in episodes over an entire week and sorta live-blogging the experience). I was worried that I wasn’t being fair to it. I was much meaner about THE COTTAGE (and somebody, perhaps the director, has objected to this in the Comments section) but at least I saw that one in approved conditions, at the cinema and in one go.
Generally, friends said things like “You’re being quite even-handed about it, but the fact that it’s taking you a week to watch it…one can read between the lines.”
Well, without my even noticing, I managed to watch more that 24 minutes of it last time — in fact, it was more like 30! So I knew I had only one short burst left in store, but somehow I couldn’t quite settle down to it last night. I spent the evening making screen grabs of Anton Diffring’s arse exploding instead, which somehow felt more, I dunno, rewarding.
But, with Jaffa Cakes to the ready I finally completed my epic slog through the film. I was pleasantly surprised! As I had suspected, the long-delayed revelation that explains Kate Dickie’s erratic behaviour through the whole film was kind of a damp squib in dramatic terms, failing to exceed what I’d already imagined. And in the aftermath of her LADY VENGEANCE-style attempt at gaining retribution (a completely half-arsed scheme that could never have worked — does Andrea Arnold have any idea how appallingly hard it is to secure a conviction for rape?) the pace slows to a crawl, to the point where you expect it to start replaying backwards, like that bit in FUNNY GAMES. Kate’s in-laws make tea. We watch three cups being carefully poured, in real time. A biscuit is selected. Will her dad-in-law have a biscuit? No, he’ll not bother.
BUT! A happy ending. How surprising. Not overwhelmingly happy, but redemptive. Joy Division drone rapturously onto the soundtrack, just to stop us getting TOO excited, and this is accompanied by a high-angle shot that might as well have “The End” stenciled across it — the combination of song and locked-off composition rupture the carefully-preserved aesthetic of the rest of the film, but it’s arguably appropriate to do so. It seemed kind of wrong, though. Maybe making the shot a security camera view would have justified it.
This is the first in a three-film scheme originated by Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa Films, who have been drawn to Scotland by the preponderance of gloom. Like moths to a flame, only a flame that somehow makes the room darker. Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen created a core group of characters (a not-too-diverse bunch of working-class whites, alas) who are to feature in all three films. As I always say, it seems a screwy justification for making films, but if the films are good they won’t need any justification. I’m dining with the writer of the second film this evening, so expect GOSSIP.
RED ROAD seems to struggle slightly with the imposed form. At least one major character, Natalie Press, has no storyline of her own and no real involvement with anybody else’s. Martin Compston is only slightly more integrated. The film apes REAR WINDOW’s construction to a moderate degree, with Kate Dickie’s surveillance job affording her a window into numerous lives, but this isn’t exploited the way Hitchcock did it: there’s really only ONE supporting character, a man with a dog, and his “story” is extremely slight (dog dies, is replaced, a distant echo of one strand from the Hitchcock film). The surveillance work is smoothly woven into the central plot, but other elements, such as Dickie’s van-driving, premature-ejaculating lover, have no real narrative function and seem to occupy space that could be better filled.
My feeling is that the film’s constant hugging of its central enigma to its chest is a neurotic mistake. If we opened with the background tragedy, all Dickie’s behaviour would carry more emotional weight, while still being intriguing and baffling. The story overall has a decent heft to it, but it’s drawn out to staggering lengths, and what might help would be a bunch of supporting stories using the other characters. At present they don’t serve any purpose except to pad out a thin plot.
RED ROAD is a superior Scottish film. That’s my problem — it exemplifies an approach to filmmaking that ignores the need for complex narratives and replaces it with nothing but nice photography. It’s well shot, well-acted, well-scored (but some actual TUNES would have helped), but it seems parsimonious, refusing us subplots, tonal variety, changes of pace, fun. It’s the kind of film people abroad might expect from the Scots: dour and tight-fisted.
I don’t need each Scottish film to fulfill every possibility of cinema, but I’m tired of the sameness. A filmmaker as able as Arnold ought to separate herself from the herd by making something genuinely different for her next project. Scottish cinema needs a change.