Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Road to nowhere

Red Road, the debut feature of Scottish writer/director Andrea Arnold, has a "thank you" to screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga within its end credits. This was the least Arnold could do, given how much the film borrows (or "homages") from his work, which includes the screenplays for Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. There is a willfully misdirected storyline, which, once righted, is supposed to provide some sort of third-act catharsis; a fateful car crash; an explicit sex scene between deeply conflicted characters; and, as it happens, perros. I'm not saying the film, honored by Cannes, the Scottish BAFTA Awards, and the British Independent Film Awards, is unoriginal; Arnold has a good eye, and Red Road has finely observed performances and an intriguing set-up. But I'm something of an Arriaga agnostic, finding his contrived screenplays rather cheap, and think Arnold, who won the live action short Oscar in 2005 for Wasp, might want to follow her own path next time.

Red Road trains its eye on Jackie (Kate Dickie), a surveillance camera operator whose equipment is focused on the gritty Glasgow neighborhood of the title. Unlike snazzed-up US films that revel in the possibilities of this increasingly Orwellian technology, the movie isn't overawed by spying culture; it's useful, if a little grubby, and not the be-all and end-all to crime rates. (DP Robbie Ryan and editor Nicolas Chauderge give the sequences at Jackie's workplace, where she is planted, in near-isolation, in front of her roving monitor, a distinctive look and rhythm.) And it's no use solving crimes of the heart. Life is literally passing the taciturn Jackie by, for reasons unknown. One day, she spots the boorish Clyde (Tony Curran) in her lens. Clyde, a figure from Jackie's past, is a tough customer clearly best avoided, but Jackie is drawn to confront him, even if this end involves some questionable means on her part. The film means to upend what we know, or think we know, about Jackie and Clyde, but I've learned to expect the unexpected from this kind of drama, however interested I was in the performers (Martin Compton and Natalie Press are the two other main characters in Clyde's unstable orbit) and their shabby, hard-scrabble milieu. (Subtitles are provided to guide us down these mean streets.)

Red Road, which Tartan Films opens tomorrow, is the first film in a planned trio (sigh; movies big and small seem all to come in threes anymore) from Advance Party, a Dogma-style UK and Denmark initiative whose three directors will put the same Scots characters through different scenarios. Different, I hope, from films, and cinematic trends, that have come before. For the plan to bear true artistic fruit, Advance Party is advised to stick to its own road next time.

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