'Red Road': It's 2007, And Big Sister Is Watching

Kate Dickie takes her surveillance work out of the control booth and into the streets when she is driven to follow a man she sees on her video monitor.
Kate Dickie takes her surveillance work out of the control booth and into the streets when she is driven to follow a man she sees on her video monitor. (Tartan Films)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

"Red Road" shows the primeval forces lurking inside us -- no matter how modern and civilized we think we've become.

Unfolding with hypnotic deliberation, this psychodrama takes us into present-day Britain and an uber-monitored society in which an increasing number of towns have been rigged with closed-circuit televisions. Ostensibly built to identify and combat crime, they have become such a ubiquitous part of life, they're practically ignored. But who sits in those control booths? And who watches the watchers?

"Red Road," which won the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is no law-enforcement procedural. Its story -- and eerie allure -- come from our evolving perception of Jackie (Kate Dickie), a surveillance operator in Glasgow, Scotland, who spends long days and nights scanning the panoply of humanity on her screens.

At first, we feel a civic solidarity with Jackie. Her video turf is the dismal, real-life Red Road district, and there's an almost feral menace to the nameless souls as they move through dark streets and deserted lots. And like Jackie, we think of them as hunters or prey. At any moment, we realize, someone's life could be in danger. It's up to her to intervene with godlike power.

But when Jackie reacts fearfully to a redhead man (Tony Curran) looming large on her monitors, the movie shifts gears. She becomes obsessed with him, following the man into cafes and pubs. And in startlingly short order, Jackie's dramatic evolution from a quiet, demure employee to a creature of dark and predatory purpose becomes the real story.

That narrative shift is part of "Red Road's" Dogme 95 filmmaking, a style devised by Lars von Trier and other Danes in 1995, advocating low-tech storytelling and eschewing high-tech post-production effects. This scaling-back forces filmmakers to concentrate fully on the movie's core elements -- the unfolding story and the emotional intensity of the performances. Its entertainment value comes, then, in the surprising, even melodramatic twists and turns of its plot, which is given theatrical heft by the performers.

Directed and co-written by British first-timer Andrea Arnold, "Red Road" is the first in a Dogme-styled trilogy called "Advance Party." Dogme filmmakers Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen conceived the idea and the characters, commissioning three first-timers to direct, using the same players, setting and techniques.

With assured performers, handheld cameras and natural lighting -- the ABCs of the Dogme method -- Arnold has given this ambitious undertaking a provocative start. Dickie gives Jackie a tremulous, unnerving strength. We're desperate to get to the bottom of her mystery and the animal instincts that drive her. Curran is variously menacing, reassuring and sexy as Clyde. And as Clyde's edgy housemates, Martin Compston and Nathalie Press (whom indie audiences may remember from 2004's "My Summer of Love") give the movie a constant hum of menace.

Shot in digital video, "Red Road" gives us a firsthand, almost documentary connection to its drama. A fight in a pub -- a confusing, alarming flurry of fists and thick-accented curses -- seems to break out around us. Drunk partygoers weaving in the red-lighted semi-darkness of a late-night bash make us feel nearly intoxicated. We can almost smell the dirty, graffiti-covered walls. And like Jackie, we feel as though we're prowling the wilds of Red Road, not sure which herd is ours, lost in our own mysteries.

Red Road (113 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. In heavily accented English with subtitles.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company