Glasgow, Scotland, for all of its charms — which, from all appearances, amount to little more than unending pub traffic — is fast becoming the world’s destination for the cinema of the damned. With its bleak landscape, industrial waste, smog, and crushing poverty, it has all the appeal of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination, though with far less opportunity. Its representation on film, then, assures the viewer that at no time will hope factor into the equation, and it’s a good bet that abuse, neglect, and violent death will follow in short order. Even the people erode a viewer’s good cheer, as their legendary status as a spirited, hearty folk is quickly supplanted by a perpetual sourness that borders on an exaggerated melancholy. Such crushing depression, then, permeates every frame of Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, an oozing scab of a movie that manages to entertain in spite of itself, largely due to the efforts of its talented director. Having already rocked my sensibilities with the Oscar-winning short film Wasp, I had high expectations indeed, which were not at all disappointed. Red Road is a cynical, downbeat exercise; a glimpse into barren lives of despair where even the very idea of redemption involves ugly sex with the ex-con who ran over your family while stoned out of his mind on crack cocaine.
Jackie (Kate Dickie), works in surveillance for the city of Glasgow, staring intently at dozens of television monitors that display assorted happenings all over town. The city, it seems, is teeming with cameras, making its comparison to the Eastern Bloc that much more apt. All sense of privacy is gone, yet the people go about their day without much concern for the authoritarian trappings. Perhaps the city’s citizens do mind a great deal, but that issue isn’t explored here, and it’s enough to take everything we see for granted. Given Glasgow’s open pit of an image, I’d expect Jackie to witness all sorts of crime throughout her day, though we (through her eyes) manage to catch only a single violent display. Otherwise, it’s a back-alley shag or two, drunken revelry, and hundreds of people just going about their business. The voyeur in all of us might kill for such an opportunity (especially given the reach of these cameras), but from all appearances, it’s dull, mindless work, and only on occasion must one alert the authorities to deviant acts. Jackie’s job is shown in bursts, showing her brief guilty pleasures, but also the expected tedium. Her home life isn’t much better, and the film wisely plays it all as lived: quiet, sad, and lacking much by way of drama. Of course, such lives are not unique to Glasgow, but these streets do add to the sense of character. A sense of place is vital if we are to believe the utter isolation. Here, there is literally no escape.
We soon learn that Jackie is mourning a great loss, the deaths of her daughter and husband, who were killed while waiting for a bus. The guilt weighs on Jackie, and as such, her relationship with the in-laws is distant and hesitant. She accepts an invitation to attend her sister-in-law’s wedding, but she stays on the fringe, still not sure of her position now that her one link to the family is dead and buried. How does one deal with such relations, after all? Do obligations remain? Is conversation possible? Most people look upon their spouse’s parents as a necessary evil, but even if the link is not so forced, should the ties survive beyond the marriage? These scenes are odd at first, largely because we don’t quite know the details, but as they emerge, they open up new questions that the film thankfully doesn’t feel obligated to answer. When they at last discuss where to place his ashes (a favorite loch seems fitting, they agree), there’s a tentative truce (and tears), but it’s impossible to believe that anything substantial will follow. Still, by keeping these people in her life, she is able to keep alive the illusion that her family remains somewhat intact. It’s a diversion, and even if there’s love, it will fasten her tight to the bitter present.
Still, Jackie’s life takes an even more bizarre turn when she believes she sees the face of the man who killed her family on one of her screens. She can’t be sure, but she recoils with certainty, as if those events years before have suddenly been made fresh. She makes a few calls and discovers that the man in question, Clyde (Tony Curran), has in fact secured an early release, and is now working for a locksmith. What’s more, he’s living on Red Road, which houses the grim apartment complex known to be the “hot spot” for ex-cons looking for new beginnings. Jackie is horrified, of course, not only because he’s out far too soon, but also because she must face the crushing reality that this rotten bastard lives, works, and plays while her loved ones live no more. The man has done his time and paid his debt, so to speak, but that’s hardly comforting for Jackie, a woman now reduced to an invasive job and perfunctory sex with a dippy co-worker. On that subject, I’m continually amazed with the new turn in cinema, whereby all men seem to last no more than one minute in the sack. A few thrusts, a grunt or two, and they explode with selfish passion. The everlasting gentlemen of the past, it seems, have gone the way of the Dodo. It’s an encouraging turn to be sure, especially if the cinema is to be any way responsible for setting expectations in our culture, and I applaud the director’s inclusion of no less than two of the premature buggers. If future generations are to believe that sex is dull at best, I may actually stand a chance.
The “plot,” then, grinds into motion, as Jackie follows Clyde around, tracking his movements, and purposely running into him at cafes and laundromats. She even manages to find out his apartment number, and she visits one evening under the pretense of being a mere guest at his party. Living with Clyde is Stevie (Martin Compston), a fellow jailbird who is exactly the sort of young snot you’d like to repeatedly punch in the face. Jackie halfheartedly flirts with Clyde, then retreats, leaving suddenly to rethink her revenge. Or is it revenge? We can’t be entirely sure at first, for perhaps this is simply Jackie’s way of seeing if Clyde is in any way remorseful, or trying to lead a new life. Jackie later returns, though, and her plans take on a new twist. She submits to wild sex with the dumb beast, which is arguably the most intense experience since her husband’s death. The sex is fierce and blunt, but we wonder if her response is at all authentic. Is she genuinely aroused, or is the performance the best way to placate her own guilt for what she is about to do? With a jolt, Jackie runs from the apartment, leaving a screaming Clyde in her wake, though not before she takes the used condom, smears semen all over her vagina, and hits herself in the face with a rock. After she’s “escaped,” she calls the police and reports a rape. It’s ingenious, really, as no one will believe the words of a felon (and the vehicular homicides are but a few of his lifelong violations), and the parole violation — as well as the severity of the crime — will likely put Clyde away for good. It seems reasonable, of course, and perhaps even “just,” but there’s nothing heroic about it, and without histrionics, politics, or overt displays, the emptiness of the act is immediately apparent. It’s one of the few times where empathy can be granted to both parties at the same time, making a “choice” all but impossible.
Her grief is understandable, and under the circumstances, vigilantism seems acceptable, but Clyde is no rapist — at least not in this case — and, emotions aside, it would be no different than executing an innocent man. He’s guilty, all right, only not of this crime. Sure, the creep is a drunk, and a lout, and will likely offend again, but isn’t that exactly the sort of preventive law enforcement that so violates our sense of decency? It’s bad enough that Glasgow has installed cameras on every street corner; must they imprison the innocent as well? Fine, Clyde is a ginger after all, and as such immediately suspect, but surely even he has rights the law is bound to respect. Eventually, though, Jackie drops the charges, I’m guessing because she needs him available to describe that night to her and help her put it all to bed. She must move on, much like the man whose on-camera drama unfolds before her eyes after he loses his dog and soon adopts another. Still, her “redemption” is not at all common or expected, and though she seems to forgive this man (and herself), it’s doubtful her life will be as sticky sweet as so many movies imply. She hasn’t found a new love, or embraced God, or learned some half-baked life lesson that brings forth sunshine and rainbows. She still hurts (likely always will), feels a great hole in her life, and can’t yet shake the demons, and all she’s really done is accept that revenge isn’t anything like they portray in the movies. Its cathartic power, then, is more than mere illusion; it’s the stuff of bullshit. And does she not return to her job of anonymous, detached omnipotence? A shady way of life that is at best unethical? She’s reached certain conclusions for herself, but left other trouble spots unattended. Maybe she’ll get there, too. Or not. Only the latter, though, makes her real.