Voyeuristic snooping tends to get people in trouble in the movies.
James Stewart in Rear Window is perhaps the consummate cinematic example of a voyeur who becomes a victim in that 1954 Alfred Hitchcock classic. Directors from Francis Ford Coppola (with 1974's The Conversation) to Michael Haneke (1992's Benny's Video) have examined the inherent perversity and soul-eroding danger in watching life unfold from a distance.
Which brings us to Red Road, British writer/director Andrea Arnold's debut feature and an almost unbearably creepy updating of the perils of watching from afar.
Set in a dire, inner-city stretch of Glasgow, Red Road centers on a paid voyeur, Jackie (Kate Dickie), who works from a safe, aloof vantage in the City Eye Control room monitoring an enormous bank of television screens where countless images of Glasgow's mean streets are projected from surveillance cameras. Jackie witnesses acts of human frailty and heartbreak interspersed with acts of casual violence, stabbings, vandalism and public sex. Sometimes Jackie calls the police and other times she merely observes.
But when Jackie sees the familiar face of a criminal named Clyde (Tony Curran) recently released from prison on one of her surveillance screens, she enters and becomes a participant in that surveyed reality. In this film that comments so perceptively on the passivity of film-going and the detachment of modern life, Jackie enters the drama of life she has only passively observed before.
Filmmaker Arnold generates enormous, cold-sweat tension from the calm, stealth spectacle of soft-spoken Jackie, hiding behind a curtain of black bangs, moving in closer to her prey, Clyde. Even while in his apartment, holding onto him for a slow dance, Jackie has the observational remove of a woman still in the City Eye Control room.
But behind Arnold's skillfully plotted, edge-of-your-seat thriller is something surprising and poignant, not unlike the wild foxes that howl and run at the margins of this bleak cityscape. There is enormous grief and feeling in this film that reveals how dramatically things change when seen up close.
Red Road. 5 stars. Directed by Andrea Arnold. Stars Kate Dickie, Tony Curran, Martin Compston and Nathalie Press. Not rated. Opens Fri., June 8. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.