A directorial debut from Andrea Arnold (winner of an Oscar for Best Short with Wasp in 2003), Red Road pulls out all the stops in an attempt to get to the heart of loss and mourning Glasgow style. Set predominantly in a large Glaswegian housing estate, the main character Jackie – a security camera operator by night, intensely grieving woman by day – accidentally stumbles on a man, who in ways only disclosed at the end, is closely tied to her past.
The emotional tour de force by its lead character Jackie, played by Kate Dickie, goes a long way to maintain the intensity of the film. Nevertheless, and despite great performances by an assortment of renegade working-class Glaswegians, the somewhat contrived revenge plot doesn’t work half as effectively as the film does in its portrayal of a particular place, namely Red Road. Captured with an assuredness that doesn’t quite match the plot, the shots of the tower-like structures, the debris and rubbish that contaminate the surrounding estate, give the viewer a sense of an environment where people have been reduced to an absolute state of dereliction. This state or rather estate is rendered astonishingly well, from a brutal pub fight between a son and his dad, to the stray dogs pissing endlessly on graffitied walls.
All the stranger then that Jackie’s nemesis turns out to be more of a gentleman than a thug, and an absolute star at what must be one of the most believable scenes of cunnilingus to hit the English screens for a long time. The problem is that the intensity of Jackie’s inner turmoil is allowed to simmer up, erotically speaking, but is otherwise kept at a distance for much of the film.
While the aim is undoubtedly to maintain a level of narrative suspense, I was gripped not by the scene where she hugs the clothes of her dead daughter, which made me want to gag rather than cry, but by the damaged environment so starkly portrayed around her.
This is, then, an extremely well-meant film – grappling with what should be a far more nuanced idea of how to achieve closure after death. I had a brief flashback to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, also about a woman in a state of protracted post-traumatic shock, but Red Road’s move from murderous red to sunny skies ends up – sadly – being too corny. Jackie may be on the road to healing her inner pain, but perversely enough I wanted her to return to the Red Road estate.