"Red Road" reps an impressive feature debut for Brit writer-helmer Andrea Arnold. Cannes contender about a Glaswegian surveillance camera operator seeking out an ex-jailbird builds up an atmospheric miasma of suspense, then fumbles the last act. "Road" looks headed down specialist release path, albeit with numerous fest detours.
Sensual, dark in every sense, but a touch derivative, “Red Road” reps an impressive feature debut for Brit writer-helmer Andrea Arnold, an Oscar-winner for her knockout short “Wasp.” Cannes contender about a Glaswegian surveillance camera operator (Kate Dickie) seeking out an ex-jailbird (Tony Curran) for mysterious reasons builds up an atmospheric miasma of suspense, then fumbles the last act with an overwrought reveal. Given its unflinching take on femme sexuality and expressionist visuals, comparisons with work by Jane Campion (“In the Cut”) and Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar”) seem inevitable, but “Road” looks headed down specialist release path, albeit with numerous fest detours.Pic is first production out of the gate for the Advance Party concept, a project that aims to make a series of films by different directors, all set in Scotland, and all based around the same core group of characters developed by Lone Scherfig (“Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”) and Anders Thomas Jensen (“Brothers”), regular employees for Danish co-producer Zentropa. Although Arnold gets sole writing credit for “Road,” Danish influence is palpable in plot’s muted but still melodramatic climax which hinges on a psychological twist that slightly strains credibility. Jackie (strong-featured legit thesp Dickie, making her feature film debut) is employed by a private security firm to monitor a swathe of CCTV cameras trained on a rough neighborhood in North Glasgow. She seems to live quietly, her only social life consisting of fortnightly jaunts with a married colleague for loveless (and apparently orgasmless, on her part) shags in his car. A widow, Jackie lost her husband and child in circumstances only specified at the end. Jackie appears to have an obsessive interest in Clyde (Curran, soon to be seen in “Miami Vice”), an ex-con who she spots on her cameras. Clyde, his friend Stevie (Martin Compston from “Sweet Sixteen”) and Stevie’s g.f. April (Natalie Press, “My Summer of Love”), all live in an apartment many stories up in a decrepit high-rise on the Red Road housing estate, where the lifts look as if they were decorated by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Jackie starts stalking Clyde around the estate and later contrives to run into him “accidentally” at a pub, where Stevie has a fight with an older man (laying foundations, no doubt, for a plot in a future Advance Party production). Clyde and Jackie end up back at his apartment for some NC-17 sex, swiftly followed by surprising behavior from Jackie that makes it clear revenge has been her motive all along. Auds and crix are likely to debate the believability of her subsequent actions, which will strike some as highly implausible, even given Jackie’s revealed reasons. End result leaves pic feeling like a somewhat attenuated short with the de rigueur sting-in-the-tail payoff. Nevertheless, helmer Arnold delivers on the promise of her short “Wasp,” which like “Red Road” used a seedy pub as a key location, to have an acute eye and ear for the textures and voices of working-class Brit culture. There are plenty of poetic touches rich in savor, such as a scene where Stevie opens a window in the apartment so that Jackie and April can feel the powerful onrush of wind tens of stories up. Meanwhile, there’s a balm of warmth in the treatment of minor characters, such as Jackie’s quietly bereaved father-in-law Alfred (Andrew Armour), endlessly fussing over her neglected garden, or a man (actor unknown) with an ailing dog she smiles down on through her spy cameras like a benevolent, all-seeing deity. Treatment of femme sexuality is complex and unflinching, calling to mind not just the aforementioned Campion and Ramsay, but also the portrait of neurotic promiscuity in Carine Adler’s “Under the Skin” and to some extent Gallic helmers like Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat. Although the sex scene is hot and heavy, cutaways to the reflection of a lava lamp in a night-darkened window add a cooling touch. Lensing, on high-definition cameras using colored gels and short focal lengths, by Robbie Ryan is frequently ravishing. Perfs, especially from lead Dickie whose face expresses much and mouth says little, richly enhance pic’s overall effect. Curran, feral, sexy and menacing all at once, is also strong, while Compston and Press, both bigger stars at this point, do good work with relatively small parts. Rest of tech package is solid, although use of ominous growls on soundtrack, to sparse to qualify as music, are slightly thumping as clues to character’s moods and feelings.