Despite its promise to strip away the illusory artifice of modern cinema and reveal truth through naturalism, Lars von Trier and company’s Dogma 95 project was, at heart, nothing more than a device in which the lack of traditional moviemaking elements (musical score, rigged lighting, professional actors) was itself just another form of synthetic gimmickry. Now, two of von Trier’s Zentropa Productions cohorts, Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, have come up with a new scheme dubbed The Advance Party, which involves three filmmakers making separate, different movies with the same actors, playing the same characters, in Scotland, of which the first is Andrea Arnold’s Red Road. How the series’s subsequent two entries inform Arnold’s effort remains to be seen, but on its own, the English director’s directorial debut (and first follow-up to her Oscar-winning 2003 short Wasp) is a hybrid of Dogma verité aesthetics and manipulative storytelling, a conflict her intermittently bracing film never properly reconciles.
Jackie (Kate Dickie) operates CCTV government surveillance cameras positioned around a seedy section of Glasgow, her detachment from those she watches via a monitor bank emblematic of her own self-alienation and estrangement from her family-in-law—a condition which, it turns out, is the byproduct of a barely healed wound that’s opened anew when she spots on her screen Clyde (Tony Curran), a reviled man from her past. Jackie’s disconnection from herself and the world around her is countered by Arnold’s up-close-and-personal cinematography, which brings heated intimacy and volatile tension to the character’s subsequent ingratiation into Clyde’s life, and which climaxes in a raw sex scene colored by a jumble of divergent emotions.
As Jackie embarks on her dangerous game of observation, deception, and blackmail, an undercurrent emerges regarding the misery-infused relationship between parents and children, but the film’s consistent, acute proximity to its protagonist (maintaining her perspective throughout) remains frustratingly at odds with its desire to shut us out from knowledge of the tragedy that’s driving her actions. By limiting our entry into Jackie’s headspace, Red Road feels disingenuously committed to sympathetically portraying her situation, partly using her circumstances as pretense for narrative suspense—suspense which, regrettably, leads to tedious audience guessing games regarding Clay’s crime (rape? Hit-and-run? Murder?) and a cathartic revenge plot by Jackie that verges on the preposterous.