Jackie (Kate Dickie) looks a bit like Chrissie Hynde in a kind of homely/sexy way. She sits gazing into a bank of video monitors. For her job, she watches, godlike, all the people who pass by the myriad of video cameras planted all about Glasgow. If trouble arises, she makes a call and someone (hopefully) shows up on the scene. It seems like the perfect job for her, hovering over other people's lives without the slightest interest in her own. She appears lost, or hollow, and the director Andrea Arnold pulls off the admirable task of making her interesting without immediately giving away her secrets. When those secrets finally come out, they do so in such a way that avoids the obvious "Shyamalan twist." Refreshingly, Red Road is a movie about a person and not a gimmick.
The catalyst comes when Jackie thinks she sees a familiar face in the monitors. We get a flicker of recognition and nothing more. We don't know if the man is a lover, a killer or even whether the man would recognize Jackie if he saw her. After work, Jackie begins to haunt the dingy neighborhood in which the man was sighted. Graffiti sprayed onto crumbling walls is more prevalent than actual intact, livable structures, and the inhabitants seem to be in a perpetual bad mood. After hanging out in a couple of sleazy cafes and bars, she manages to slip into a party at the man's apartment. He notices her and asks her to dance. He begins seducing her and she allows herself to be seduced. Or does she? It would be a disservice to continue any further with the plot, even though only part of the movie's pleasures lies in its discovery.
The English-born Arnold, who won a 2004 Oscar for her live action short film Wasp, makes an assured feature-length debut. She brings a grungy, natural light to her film, as if illuminated entirely from video monitors, harsh, dirty streetlights, or sometimes the overcast Glasgow sky creeping in through windows. She's a wanderer and a dreamer, allowing her camera to drift along behind Jackie, sometimes pausing to look at the nearby surroundings. The one thing she doesn't do, happily, is to film from the point of view of surveillance cameras; that trick has been used quite a lot lately, and it results in a kind of creepy suspense. Arnold has different things in mind.
Another interesting facet of Red Road is one that you can't see in the finished film. It's the first film of the Advanced Party Concept, developed by Lone Scherfig (director of Italian for Beginners) and Anders Thomas Jensen (writer of Mifune, The King Is Alive, Open Hearts, The Green Butchers, the new After the Wedding, and many others). All of the films are required to take place in Scotland, and must use the same characters (played by the same actors). Otherwise each filmmaker is free to place the characters in any social, geographical or ethnic background. They can create new back-stories and habits or invent minor characters. Arnold was the first to take on the assignment, and two more films are apparently on the way.
The idea is similar, of course, to "Dogme 95," utilizing the concept that strict rules will force the filmmaker to think creatively, rather than attempting to solve problems with money or more conventional means. Similar ideas were used in Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz's Three Colors trilogy, from 1993 and 1994 and in Lucas Belvaux's Trilogy (On the Run, An Amazing Couple and After the Life), released here in 2004. Minor characters from one film could suddenly turn up in a major role in the next. That would explain why the dynamic, explosive actor Martin Compston (from Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen and the Loach segment of Tickets) appears in Red Road with nothing much to do; although he does call attention to himself when he pretends to throw his girlfriend out of an apartment building's top window. We can look forward to seeing more of Compston's character Stevie in the next films.
Meanwhile, Red Road belongs to Kate Dickie, who thus far has mainly acted on stage and on the BBC. She's in nearly every scene of this film, and her ability to communicate sadness and distance without either giving away her ambiguity or alienating the audience is a grand achievement. She has the capacity to bravely step into a situation, but then to register enough vulnerability to raise the tension. In other words, she's a walking quiet conflict, like Samantha Morton and other vivid, intense actresses. Without her, the character of Jackie would have been lost forever, watching her little TV screens.Note: Usually films imported from Glasgow, such as Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher (1999) or Loach's Sweet Sixteen and My Name Is Joe (1998), come with English subtitles. They speak English there, of course, but the accents are often so thick that most Americans can't understand them. The print I saw of Red Road came without subtitles, but I was able to understand most of what was said, to the point that I was satisfied I correctly followed the movie. Even so, Tartan Films may change their minds and add subtitles before the film opens wider.