Well, the evening sky is bluing deeper, with a shapeless chunk of half-chewed moon glowing all the brighter in the orangy post-sunset light, and it’s time to try to watch RED ROAD. I ritually dust the TV screen — no sense letting this be any more unpleasant than it has to.
Andrea Arnold’s RED ROAD is an extremely attractive film, which is obvious from the get-go. An opening title announces GLASGOW and my prejudices kick in. But the imagery is really nice, making excellent use of the particular qualities of digital. Kate Dickie works in a room full of TV monitors, as a kind of benevolent Big Brother, watching the video piped in from the city’s security cameras. The cameras can zoom and pan in jerky, computerized motions, while the “live” footage of Dickie is loose and hand-held. Both kinds of material exploit the photogenic qualities of long-lens photography. Both partake of the observational aesthetic of Ken Loach, which I’m not to keen on. It’s a definite look (RED ROAD is much more concerned with creating a pleasing cinematic surface than Loach) and it fulfills a clear function in terms of realism, I just usually prefer being involved in a scene, as opposed to spying on it from afar.
Seven minutes in and we get the statutory joyless intercourse scene, which no Scottish film can be without. I suspect The Film Council is trying to make the Scottish people vasectomize themselves out of existence in sheer horror at the ugliness of human procreation. The most radical and shocking thing a Scottish film could do nowadays would be to create the mood of romance you can find in early Bill Forsyth. But even he doesn’t do that anymore: GREGORY’S TWO GIRLS opens with the terrifying spectacle of John Gordon-Sinclair’s “Oh Face,” followed by a closeup of the damp aftermath of his wet dream on bedsheets. Thanks for that.
So far the only thing wrong with the film, per se, is a tendency to overemphasise Dickie’s reactions to the security camera footage. A man has a funny dog: she smiles warmly. It’s not bad acting, it’s bad direction, I think. REAR WINDOW uses this kind of situation, and proves that the person watching needn’t show any particular reaction at all, since the context gives us the meaning. Kate Dickie laughing at a dog won’t make the dog any funnier. Although it’s nice to see she CAN laugh.
Fiona reminds me that our chum Morag McKinnon, who’s directing the Dickie in ROUNDING UP DONKEYS right now, says that she has a really good sense of humour, is fun, etc. “Yes, but she keeps it off the screen,” I say.
There’s a good bit when Dickie finds herself on the street next to a man she’s spied on earlier. There’s an edge to the encounter and the handheld look really works for it, and the ability of digital to film basically by streetlight makes for glossy, strangely coloured beauty, augmented by eerie Muslim show tunes on the soundtrack.
A mystery is announced! Dickie is obsessed with a man she sees on cam, who’s on early release from a ten year prison sentence (Dickie keeps the old newspaper with the headline in a bag in her closet). This puzzling set-up, emerging twenty minutes in, seems rather late to act as a plot motor (it’s a common misinterpretation of the three-act structure that the story starts at the END of the first act, rather than the beginning) and evokes only a vague curiosity. The central character seems to have no successful relationships or clear goals, so apart from the desire to figure out why we’re watching this, it’s hard to figure out why we’re watching this.
I’m pretty sure an American movie would start by coming right out and telling us what the mystery man did and why it effects Dickie’s protag, and then we’d be watching not to get the puzzle cleared up, but to see what consequences this will all have. But it’s too early to say whether this film would work with that approach. All that can be said is that there’s not enough going on to create a compulsion to watch: at 24 minutes I feel an ocean of gloom closing in with the night, so I stop the disc. But I didn’t hate it, I will return for more tomorrow. Stay tuned.
(Old people — a boon to any film, because they have learned to be themselves.)
Footnote: my DVD suffers appalling combing when I try and frame-grab images, so apologies for the distorted stills, which don’t give an accurate portrayal of the lustre of Robbie Ryan’s photography.