A spellbinding, intelligent thriller that takes its time to get where it's going but is well worth the trip, "Red Road" is the feature debut of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, who won an Oscar for her short film "Wasp." Part of the Advance Party Concept, a new project from some of the folks who brought us the minimalist Dogma 95, the film is a gritty tour of Glasgow's projects via the all-seeing City Eye surveillance system.
In an Orwellian scheme of closed-circuit television cameras throughout the city, images are beamed to a control center filled with video monitors observed by operators who alert the police to anything that seems amiss. Jackie, the film's protagonist, works as an operator, watching the large bank of monitors, alternately bemused and intrigued by the mundane transactions that appear.
It's an act of sanctioned voyeurism, and occasionally she witnesses a crime or gets an unexpurgated view of people having sex. From her remote perch she sees the gamut of life and death interactions. One day, she is startled to recognize a man to whom she has some dark connection. Arnold slowly reveals just enough information about Jackie to keep us riveted. In expertly parsing out the exposition she simultaneously builds an intriguing character while laying the groundwork for a gripping yarn of suspense.
Jackie is played with bravura simplicity by Katie Dickie, a Scottish TV actor making her film debut. Dickie bears a passing resemblance to a young Helen Mirren and shares her ability to shape a performance through her eyes.
We learn gradually that Jackie bears the weight of intense sorrow. Her life consists of trips between her sparse home and work, punctuated by a bi-weekly tryst with a married man in his security van.
Then she spots Clyde Henderson (intensely played by Tony Curran) on her video monitor. Carefully, she verifies his identity and tracks him down to Red Road, where he lives in blighted public housing. Her rudderless life suddenly takes on meaning as she infiltrates the lives of Clyde and his flatmates (Martin Compston and Natalie Press).
Arnold reels us in as she pieces together the dots that connect Jackie to Clyde and grudgingly divulges her intentions toward him. There's a smoldering current of sex and violence running throughout "Red Road," and it's an indication of Arnold's skill as a filmmaker that we experience this even as Jackie is submerged in a world of melancholy.
The Advance Party Concept plans two more films with different writers and directors using the same four primary characters, played by the same actors. Aside from a starting point in Scotland and basic character traits, the writers may take the scripts in any direction. It's an unusual idea, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out, but Arnold has certainly set the bar high for the other filmmakers.
The film will screen with English subtitles to help with the, at times, heavy Scottish accents.
"Red Road." Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223; and the Regal/Edwards Westpark 8, 3755 Alton Parkway, Irvine, (949) 622-8609.