Red Road (UK, 2006, Andrea Arnold)
This is a good film but not a great one, not even a damn good one. I believe it is instructive to compare it to Fish Tank (2009), which Arnold made only three years after this one and which truly is an excellent film. The difference does not have to do with the screenplay, performances, cinematography, editing or anything else technical one might want to examine. Nor does it have to do with the subject matter, for both films are equally focused on seriously tough social relations in dire circumstances. The difference resides, rather, on drama that is absolutely determined by ruthless realism and drama that is not. Fish Tank generates the tremendous power that is does by allowing the mundane facts of the matter to generate their own authority. The truth about things dictates the narrative and not vice versa. Red Road, conversely, relies on certain concessions in the service of story-telling that ultimately feel false, or at least exaggerated beyond any suspension of disbelief allowable for such gritty fare.
I will provide three examples. One: The protagonist tracks the movements of her chosen antagonist far beyond the potential of the technology at her disposal. At one point she leaves her station to temporarily sit at the station of one of her co-workers in order to follow her target as he moves out of her designated observation area into that of her co-worker. That she probably would not be allowed to take such liberties on the job is beside the larger point. To put it in sports terms, those cameras are trained to play zone defence, not play the man. Related to this and even more critically, the urban neighbourhood she is watching is almost always displaying the population density of a town in Saskatchewan too tiny for its own grain elevator. Hence, she is able to zero in consistently on her target who, in fact, would often be unidentifiable as part of a crowd.
Two: In the end, when she finally confronts the man as the killer of her family, one line of dialogue is provided to justify that he has not recognized her as the wife/mother of the two people he killed. "You never once looked at me in the courtrooom," she shouts at him, or words to that effect. It's not that this would have been impossible. It's that it would have been improbable. Especially given that he killed them by accident in drunken manslaughter. But this we only learn in this same late scene. Indeed, so much of the suspense of the film has to do with us not even knowing exactly what crime/sin he has committed against the woman, how evil he is. It comes down that he is not evil, of course, and this thematic complexity is welcome. Nevertheless, it seems highly likely that any not-evil person who made a terrible mistake would attempt to apologize/atone at the time of his trial, at least to some extent. And this would involve looking at the women, eh? Or maybe, her experience at the time notwithstanding, he did take a peek at her before, but she has cut her hair since then, we are informed in a previous scene, so now she is unrecognizable? Posh!
Three: I am no expert in police business. Even so, I am pretty confident in saying that any cop shop that received a report by a woman claiming she was raped by the same man who killed her husband and daughter, a man only recently released from prison for this crime, well come on, how much detective chops are needed in order to approach this with some skepticism? Plus, she changes her mind, drops the charges and there are no legal consequences as a result of her bearing false witness. I'm sorry, this is simply shabby.