Andrea Arnold, A Director of Chaos: Red Road

At the press conference for her fourth film, American Honey, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, Andrea Arnold was introduced as a “Cannes child”, since two of her previous features, Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), were both awarded the Grand Jury Prize in their respective years. Arnold struck lightning again with her latest film; it won the same prize at this year’s Cannes. With Red Road, we continue our journey with Arnold and move past her shorts to look at how she grabbed the festival spotlight so fiercely and hasn’t really let go.

The idea for Red Road came from the Danish filmmakers Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, as part of a unique concept called “Advance Party,” produced by Sigma Films in Glasgow and Zentropa in Denmark. As written in the press kit for Red Road: “The idea behind Advance Party is that the same group of characters would be given to three different directors who would each have to develop a film around those characters. All the films would shoot for the same length of time in the same city, Glasgow. Sigma and Zentropa had decided to use first time directors paired with first time producers.” The other first time directors that were chosen alongside Arnold were Morag McKinnon and Mikkel Nørgaard; McKinnon’s Advance Party project, Donkeys, languished in development until its release in 2010, and Nørgaard’s project never saw the light of day. It’s a bonafide miracle that Arnold was able to make her film when she did.

It is important to keep the origins of Red Road in mind while discussing the actual film itself. Red Road is not Arnold’s story per se; it’s Arnold’s take on characters that are not her own to begin with. Her frustration in taking ownership of the story is mentioned in an interview with Anthony Kaufman for Indiewire; Kaufman writes: “At the Sundance Filmmaker Labs, where Arnold further developed the script, she was embarrassed to bring up the origins of the project in a room full of passionate writer-directors with close attachments to their subject matter. “I felt like such a sham,” she admits. “I was quite depressed about it. And then I went away and thought, ‘I’m doing the wrong thing. Maybe I can’t write something and make it my own.'” The Advance Party team further complicated things by adding two characters that McKinnon and Nørgaard wanted to have in their stories; Arnold had to find a way to incorporate them in her existing story without damaging the flow of the story and the integrity of the characters.

Red Road follows the story of Jackie (Kate Dickie), a CCTV operator who comes face to face with a man from her past that she can’t let go of, Clyde (Tony Curran), setting her on a path down to the Red Road housing estate, where the man lives. A lot of the film is spent in Jackie’s workplace, the CCTV station. Jackie is the all-seeing and all-knowing character of the film; her knowledge is tied to her access to the CCTV cameras. Bathed in the cold blue light of the screens she watches every day, we see her unemotional and clinical state reflected back on her. We get a glimpse of the different stories she sees on a daily basis: there’s a workplace romance with two employees who take the late shift at work, a crime story when Jackie witnesses a stabbing in an ugly part of town, and a drama that takes place with a man she frequently sees, and his sick dog that drags its feet around.

Jackie watches reality on TV daily, but she also gets to determine whether she likes where the stories go and can change the course of their narratives. Her journey in the film takes her from being a passive observer of these stories to participating in one for herself. Arnold initially hints at the violence of that transition; when Jackie accidentally enters one of her stories, the one with the man and his dog, she lingers around perhaps a bit too long, out of the thrill of being in the story, and then the man walks his dog away. Soon after, she sees that the dog being taken away, presumably to the pound.

Dogs, and other animals for that matter, including foxes and birds like Alfred’s (Andrew Armour) parrot, populate Red Road in interesting and unobtrusive ways; Arnold’s penchant for animal symbolism is a recurring thread throughout her work (after all, her last two shorts were named Dog and WASP), and it has only grown with her latest film, American Honey. Jackie’s position as an overseer or guardian over the housing estate she operates the CCTV cameras for makes her seem like a ranger at a nature park, corralling the animals and people in place when they go too far astray from where they are supposed to go, or when they engage in violence and need to be separated from each other. Base desire drives Jackie’s relationship with her colleague Avery (Paul Higgins), as well as her relationship with Clyde to some extent. But if Arnold links her characters to animals in a lot of ways, she also presents the argument in Red Road that part of what separates humans from animals is their power of empathy. While cold-blooded revenge might suit animals fine, when Jackie sees that Clyde’s daughter chose to visit his house and reconnect with her father, only to find that he’s not home because of Jackie’s actions, her empathy as a parent kicks in and influences her to drop the charges she placed against Clyde.

Red Road is an old-fashioned revenge plot masquerading as a surveillance thriller, which is certainly an atypical Andrea Arnold film. The surveillance angle puts it in the ballpark of films like Rear Window, The Conversation, and The Lives of Others, but Arnold’s use of it is less direct than with those films. Clyde is not the bad guy we are initially led to believe, and so most of the suspense in the film comes from Jackie’s actions rather than his own. By stepping from observer to participant, Jackie is able to bring her skills of manipulating reality to make the people around her see what she wants us to see, which is similar to Arnold’s strategy in the way she tells the story, keeping the narrative ambiguous until the very last few scenes. Just as she is able to manipulate reality at her job, by calling the police or ambulance services as and when needed in different parts of the housing estate, Jackie is able to manipulate the reality around her, fooling Clyde and his friends into bringing her into their fold, by performing as she’s seen people act out their lives on the TV screens she watches. But the cost she pays by being an active participant in the world around her is that she’s exposed to confronting her past trauma, thereby getting a chance to become human again, which she does at the end of the film.

Red Road is a strong transition for Arnold to move from her short films to the features space, but it is also an anomaly in its narrative focus and structure because of its production. While Fish Tank and American Honey had a formal classicism to them, Red Road is more in line with the low-budget, gritty, digital filmmaking aesthetic of the ‘00s. However, the initial promise that Red Road provided takes us to Arnold’s feature breakout: Fish Tank.

Up next: the lyrical coming-of-age tale, Fish Tank.