Late in Red Road, a man and a woman are alone, late at night on the 24th floor of the council flat buildings found on the street that gives the film its name. All you can see from the window is the bruise-yellow glare of the streetlights and the grey of concrete and urban sprawl. You don't see nature, but you hear it -- the high, shrieking barks of the local fox population eking out survival in the hollows between the concrete. It's a keening, sad sound -- the instincts of wild beings constrained by the structure of the modern world -- and it's hard to tell if the foxes are crying out in defiance or in agony. The same could be asked of the man and woman listening.
In Glasgow, Jackie (Kate Dickie) works at the city's central CCTV station -- watching and monitoring the streets of the city and the lives of its citizens. She watches dispassionately; if anything of interest happens, she calls it in to the appropriate city service, dispatching an ambulance or summoning police as needed. It's a data-processing job, and she seems to do it well. But one day one of her many screens shows someone familiar, and that spurs her to a different kind of reaction: not professional, but personal. In time, Jackie's relationship to the man, Clyde (Tony Curran), becomes understood, but it hardly becomes clear.
Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, Red Road is one of the best films I've seen at Cannes this year. As it plays it seeps into your consciousness; when it's done, it haunts you. At first, Jackie's workaday relationship to the surveillance state is disquieting and provocative; as her past is revealed, the question of what she'll do next -- about Clyde, about her own challenges -- manages to combine the flat, character-driven naturalism of the best drama with the terse, compelling energy of the best crime fiction.
It's hard to say how much of the plot should be revealed in any review of Red Road -- the film itself takes its time with its revelations, and there are elements of surprise that I'm hesitant to reveal. But while much will be made of Red Road's raw, shivering sexuality and fever-pitch emotion, the film also deserves acclaim for its craft and care; how well Arnold's created a surveillance sensibility in the film, an aesthetic of watching. And in a way, Red Road's a critique of the surveillance state: The people watching us in our daily lives have their own lives and problems -- does that make you feel better, or worse, about the fact they're watching you? Can you watch everything without truly seeing anything? And what happens when observation and judgment become action and vengeance?
It's hard to imagine Red Road finding wide distribution -- raw sadness and grief are a tough sell, and the film's sex scenes are so real that they border on uncomfortable. But Red Road's conviction and powerful performances should make it unforgettable for anyone who does see it: It's a film with unshakable images and moments of sorrow that asks hard-to-answer questions about what real redemption and forgiveness demand.