When terrible things happen, when trauma is inflicted on another person, there are any number of symptoms that can make themselves seen in the aftermath. One underreported of these symptoms is called hypervigilance. Simply defined, hypervigilance is a person’s senses being oddly enhanced in order to be more aware of their surrounding. Now, this may sound like a superhero thing, but this is Criterion Crunch Time, which, unlike other columns, is mostly devoid of that genre. Red Road, directed by Andrea Arnold, provides a nearly perfect example of that hypervigilance, both in metaphorical style and in action. Arnold, who also directed the wildly unconventional coming of age story American Honey and the risky (and beautiful) adaptation of Wuthering Heights, burst on to the scene with Red Road, and this may be her most difficult movie to date.
Red Road, with its achingly slow reveal, maybe a challenge for inpatient viewers. But Arnold’s subtle hand behind the camera, combined with Kate Dickie’s incredibly authentic portrayal of Jackie make this worth the wait. Throughout much of the film, we know next to nothing about Jackie. Even in moments of supposed intimate actions, we, and everyone else, are kept at a distance. Dickie’s internal work should be studied for years. Every microexpression contains depths that are only revealed in nearly the last frame.
So who is Jackie? Initially, we know her as simply a CCTV operator. Essentially, she watches cameras of a relatively small area of the community for concerning activities. And for someone who is constantly with an eye out post-trauma (as we learn later), Jackie is more than qualified. We also see through a wedding invitation begging her to attend that she is both loved and missed. Again, this is Arnold’s subtle way of increasing that distance between Jackie and the world. By providing this, it both provides distance for the audience and a desire to become closer. The camerawork supports this by slowly creeping towards Jackie’s face. But again Dickie’s features and purposeful coldness and hard edges will only allow so much.
Jackie’s sexual activity, which is a consistent background to the entire film, is another way Arnold is unflinching in her storytelling. Survivors of trauma tend to be portrayed as either sexually shut off or hypersexual. Jackie is neither. She certainly has a sexual relationship, though it is clearly unfulfilling and with a married man. This feels as if Jackie is both desperate for intimacy and avoidant of it. After all, the man being married is her trump card. If she wants distance, it is easy for her to simply callously tell him to go take care of his family. But that physical connection matters, too. Given that she has separated herself from literally everyone, it reminds her for a moment or two that she is human. But after those scenes end, one can almost literally watch the light go out of her eyes as she regresses back to self-protection.
But back to the trauma. Red Road provides hints but does not divulge until the last possible moment. There is a fleeting interaction with an older man when she does attend the wedding that is a purposeful misdirect, but also not dishonest in its portrayal. Red Road is a movie with a reveal, but it does not cheat. Much of this is to do with both the script, also written by Arnold and Dickie’s performance. Of course, she doesn’t tell anyone her issues, everything about her is locked deep inside. And thankfully, Red Road is not the type of movie to employ nonsense exposition to clue the audience in. Arnold trusts the watcher (in this case us, not Jackie) to put in the work necessary to earn that reveal.
Another momentary clue is revealed after Jackie clearly sees a man (Tony Curran) she recognizes on her CCTV post. Immediately afterward, she returns to her darkened home to eye a newspaper clipping with the same man. All we are shown is that this man, Clyde, is the architect of her pain, but with no clear explanation. This is the moment the movie and the performance hinge upon. Jackie takes it on herself to put herself on a collision course with this presumably dangerous man. And from this point, Dickie’s countenance as an actress changes. It is still a subtle performance but feels extreme in comparison to everything that came before. She is suddenly talkative, charming, and, in later scenes, alluring.
It is nearly impossible to talk about Red Road without mentioning the sex scene. Some complain about the male gaze of sex in most movies, and for solid reasons. But it all too rare to see the female gaze on screen. This scene is a prime example of that gaze. There is almost a complete focus on Jackie’s pleasure. It is shot in such a way as to be blatantly sexual, but never leering at her. If anything, the focus and the sexual object is the man. Even now, this feels different and even radical.
Now, there is a quick plot burst of Jackie reporting this consensual encounter as rape, complete with her fabricating a beating by smashing her own cheek with a rock. As a note, that scene is as hard to watch as you might think. Handled by a less talented screenwriter and director, this could be intensely problematic given that falsely reported rapes rarely occur, but are used as a defense of many horribly violent male perpetrators. So, it is a blessing that Jackie almost immediately rescinds these charges. However, this change of heart also serves, once again, to make us question Jackie’s motives. What was this trauma, and if it was so terrible, why would she save him from a terrible fate in prison?
You may have noticed that I have not revealed this important plot point, even though this review and others tend to be spoiler heavy. Honestly, I find myself not wanting to ruin that reveal or the scene between Clyde and Jackie that arrives immediately afterward. Many films that build to a major reveal simply collapse on themselves after that moment and deny audiences a reason to either keep watching or even rewatch at a later date. This is most assuredly not the case with Red Road. Both the reveal and the discussion between the two simply must be seen.
Red Road is a movie that works on all levels. The performances and the direction are simply a masterclass. The metaphor inherent in the script works without ever being oppressive and overbearing. It is rare that a first film is this polished. Red Road is more than a view into the filmmaker that Arnold would and will become. It stands alone, by any comparison, as a difficult, great film.