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Welcome to Cold Comforts, a recurring column in which Soraya Roberts writes about the grim, harrowing, and downright bizarre movies and television shows that she nevertheless can’t stop watching, over and over again

A grim admission: I prefer characters who are cut off from the world. I don’t know if it’s empathy or anxiety or schadenfreude—likely it’s some configuration of all three—but I gravitate towards the comforts of a smaller life. I like solitude—watching a character walking through a city without really being a part of it, walking through anything without really being a part of it. I don’t know. It’s not like my life is like that, exactly, but those are always the perfect days to me, the Platonic ideal of grown-up existence—unfussed, independent.

In Red Road—the first film by Andrea Arnold, who is now better known for American Honey—Kate Dickie, who has a face so Scottish it looks like it walked out of a medieval tapestry, plays Jackie, a CCTV camera operator. Jackie spends the entirety of her days in a dark room monitoring a grid of screens which appear to capture every single nook and cranny of Glasgow’s urban decay, including the guts of some of its buildings. The intrusion into strangers’ personal lives is uncomfortable to watch (CCTV is everywhere in the UK, though Arnold filmed this footage herself using their cameras). At the same time, there is a strange sense of control within that small room, not to mention a certain solace at seeing but not sharing the bleakness; it’s like watching a film, except the film is life itself. In a no doubt conscious effort at formal foreshadowing, Arnold collapses the two realities—Jackie’s and the one on her screen—by using entirely natural light and film grain that approaches the pixelation of the CCTV screens. (Red Road and its £1 million budget came out of a project called Advance Party, which emulated Dogme 95 by putting parameters on first-time filmmakers—in this case creating characters that recur across three films.)

Jackie’s life appears to be continuous with the dour concrete of the city that encloses it, though every two weeks she drives out to some open farmland for a fairly uneventful shag with a married coworker (Paul Higgins). Even then she is shut in, her head pressed up against the glass, her pleasure undetectable. It makes the odd cigarette she inhales outside her office, against the dancing lights of twilight, oddly wistful if not quite orgasmic.

You get somewhat early on that this woman has experienced loss and that grief has turned her into a shadow. Maybe she lost a husband, maybe a child, maybe both. It’s not quite clear. So she’s depressed, she’s avoidant—that’s why she’s enjoying, in my book, the greatest of all lifestyles in her government-issued uniform, returning at the close of day to her cute middle-class home for a beer and some television. I do wish these characters with solitary, tightly prescribed lives were not always damaged in some way. Some of us like to be alone and watch TV all day—it doesn’t have to be pathological!!!

One night, on her grid Jackie sees a girl (Natalie Press) sitting alone on a sidewalk. She’s wearing a coat that gives her a bit of a Red Riding Hood vibe. Two men approach her. They seem to be together, until one of the men breaks away to run off after another woman, which prompts Jackie to call the cops for what appears to be an assault-in-progress until it becomes clear the woman is into it. This will come up again, this dance of erotic menace. Jackie watches them, her hand gripping her leg, the other stroking the joystick that controls the cameras. The man throws his head back in ecstasy and—oh, fuck. Her eyes widen, the music surges. She knows this guy.

This is where Jackie’s life collapses into the images in front of her—she watches them, she appears in them, she meets the people she sees in them, and even when she’s not in them, parts of her are (her wallet is stolen at one point, and she sees it on the CCTV screens in the hands of Red Riding Hood’s boyfriend). It’s unsettling. It’s anxiety-inducing. It’s exciting. Turns out the guy she recognized is an ex-con named Clyde (Tony Curran). It’s clear that the crime he committed somehow affected Jackie, but both the what and the how remain unclear. Either way, Clyde got out early for good behavior without her knowledge. He now lives at the Red Road estate, a towering complex which is bleak in that British tenement way—sparse, flanked by inhospitable slabs of concrete, weeds pushing through against all advice, piles of garbage and stray dogs wandering around. It’s desperation of the likes Jackie sees everyday but, at least on the surface, doesn’t touch her. Until he breaks that barrier down.

For the rest of the movie, like the embodiment of one of her cameras, Jackie creeps through Clyde’s life. Sometimes she just follows him with her joystick as he drags branches back to his apartment with Red Riding Hood and her boyfriend Stevie (Martin Compston), sometimes when he’s driving his van to a school where he flags down a girl who must be the daughter he left behind (he gives her a note and some nail polish). But all the while there’s the sense of security—the reassurance that this is not Jackie’s life. Hers is insulated and organized, civilized, far removed from this animal in his enclosure, acting like the animal he is—running his bruised and dirty hand up a waitress’s leg, licking the food off his plate, the bottoms of his jeans picking up the muck around him—out of prison but not really. He is loud, unwieldy, disgusting. Sexy.

Not unlike The Vanishing, this is a case where the victim can only get what she wants from the person who took it away. And in the middle of Clyde’s flat, red-lit for a party, as he sings at the top of his lungs to Oasis’s “Morning Glory” amid his equally down-and-out friends, stands pristine Jackie. She has snuck in with Red Riding Hood and Stevie and leans against the wall like a beautiful statue, cold and hard. This is the moment Clyde’s eyes, black as the devil’s in this light, lock on her. He floats over, grabs her hand, guides her onto the dance floor—such as it is—and presses her close, so close the intimacy between these two people who should not be intimate is almost too much to bear. You can almost smell him, feel him, rubbing his hand along her backside, dangerously close …

“I’ve been wondering what your cunt tastes like,” he says. Dickie plays Jackie’s shock here perfectly—with equal parts embarrassment and titillation. Because, yes, this is completely wrong in every way, but it’s completely hot, too. Arnold specializes in this sort of taboo sexual encounter (see the sleeping mother’s handsome boyfriend drunkenly fucking her smitten 15-year-old daughter on the couch downstairs in Fish Tank). And what’s more fucked up than seducing the guy who ruined your life? Jackie spends so much time studying Clyde like a puzzle she’s trying to figure out, that her emotions seem to just carry on without her. And when Clyde escorts her to his room, that little red glowing oasis with the lava lamp, the half-done wood carving of gnashing teeth, howling foxes outside … as he says, “You’re a sexy fucking bitch.” This time you can tell when she comes.

It’s not entirely clear what Jackie is playing at each time she picks up a shard of glass, a piece of rock, because she never seems ready to use them on Clyde. And of course, she doesn’t—the rock is for herself. Maybe you can guess, but Jackie accuses Clyde of rape, runs out to the CCTV cameras to make it look like rape, and lands Clyde back in prison. But it doesn’t bring her comfort, not when she sees his daughter come to see him, not when she realizes his daughter is about to pay for hers. During Jackie’s final confrontation with Clyde, he explains what happened, a bad accident in which, driving while high, he plowed into a bus stop where Jackie’s husband and child stood. He apologizes and apologizes and apologizes. But she barely hears it. She berated her daughter on that last day, and she can’t forgive herself. She can’t forgive him. And this is where the barrier is erected again, once again by Clyde: “You shouted at your little girl the day she died. But at least she was loved. Some people don’t get that.” The moment delivers her. And as Jackie walks through the streets of Glasgow she becomes part of the camera system she originally just oversaw—back to real life. What could be more bittersweet?

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