Jackie Morrison (Kate Dickie) lives in Glasgow, and monitors CCTV cameras for a living. One night she recognises a man on one of the monitors, Clyde Henderson (Tony Curran), and tracks his movements to the notorious Red Road apartments in Balornock. Then she deliberately manufactures a ‘chance’ meeting with him, and ingratiates herself into his life – all the while keeps her true motivations a secret.
Red Road, released in the UK in 2006, is the debut feature by acclaimed and sensationally talented director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights). It is a difficult and deeply troublesome film, particularly given that it is directed by a woman. Shot digitally, and in a naturalistic hand-held style, it offers a bleak and deeply miserable view of Glasgow and the people who live there. Everything has a weathered and run-down aesthetic. Each location feels coated in a miasma of depression. It is a hollowed out but powerfully effective setting.
As for Jackie’s motives in stalking Clyde, the reasons and the back story are teased out over the course of the film. They are challenging to watch, and force the viewer to re-assess their opinion of her character back and forth as the film goes on. Kate Dickie performs the character marvellously: she expresses things subtly, but clearly lives a life of some deep sadness. Its visible when she sits alone at home despite wearing a wedding ring, or having passionless sex in a married superior officer’s van. She makes Jackie extremely difficult to read, so the process for the audience is one of patience: waiting minute-by-minute as she is gradually revealed. By film’s end the viewer has gone on a long emotional journey, and it is largely down to Dickie to make that work.
Tony Curran has a similarly difficult task, since it becomes clear that Jackie hates Clyde for some reason but the audience is not informed of what he has done until comparatively late in the piece. What we do discover quite quickly is that he is a relatively unpleasant person, and because we do not know precisely what his misdeeds have been it is down to Curran to fill the spaces and keep us engaged in what could be an unwatchable character. Like Kate Dickie, his performance carries half of the film.
Arnold leaps out of the gate with a strong, trouble-making view of working class Scotland. She operates under the shadow of fellow director Lynne Ramsay, creating a story that fits very comfortably among the latter’s films including Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher. Through her use of seedy locations and natural light – and Robbie Ryan’s ever-so-shaky cinematography – she gives Red Road a confronting immediacy. This is a film that gets in your face and stays there, intimidatingly, for almost two hours. It certainly had an effect upon release, winning Arnold the Jury Prize at Cannes on her first attempt. This is a powerful picture well worth tracking down.
If you have not seen Red Road, and do not wish to be spoiled, you can stop with the recommendation and move on. The following paragraph spoils a key element of the narrative, but desperately requires discussion. If you are triggered by issues of sexual assault, please note the subject factors significantly in the film and you may wish to avoid Red Road altogether.
It becomes clear that Jackie is insinuating herself into Clyde’s life because she plans to have sex with him and then accuse him of sexual assault. It is a jarring and troublesome development, not simply because it is an appalling intention on Jackie’s part – rendering her immediately as the most grotesque of monsters – but because it represents a situation that acts as a nightmare scenario in fighting sexual assault. We are told victims are to be believed – and they should be – and a film narrative based around the idea of a woman faking an assault feels instinctively like a misogynist one. It is a moment in the film that viscerally repelled me, and I cannot imagine I would be the only viewer to have that reaction. Had this film been directed by a man, I suspect it would have been viciously pilloried by critics. That said, had it been directed by a man I suspect its treatment of Jackie and her actions would have been much less nuanced or complex. I firmly believe Andrea Arnold has directed Red Road in a responsible and appropriately complex fashion, but holy hell it sticks hard into the heart.