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Movie review: 'Red Road'

4 stars (out of four)

We have to tread very carefully here. The remarkable thriller "Red Road" plants tiny slivers of expository information just so, at precise and artful junctures in its story. Much (though hardly all) of the film's effectiveness depends on narrative surprise. Those surprises shouldn't be spoiled.

But writer-director Andrea Arnold's film is far more than a contraption built for conventional thrills. It's a fully realized portrait of a city, Glasgow, its high-rise projects threatened by rain and violence; a portrait of a smart, watchful woman who works as a security monitor and who has endured great loss; and a portrait of the act and psychological implications of surveillance.

In that last regard, "Red Road" hearkens back to Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," to many other films. Yet Arnold, who has earned praise for her short films and who makes a singular feature debut here, stakes out her own, defiantly personal territory. One key late scene's sexual frankness may ruffle some feathers. Rarely, however, has a director made such purposeful and immediate use of sex to deepen and complicate a fiction film, rather than simply jazzing it up.

Born in Scotland, Kate Dickie is a fantastically subtle actress little known outside the British Isles. She plays Jackie, who spends her work shifts in a little black tie and a pale blue shirt, scanning a wall filled with video monitors for signs of street crime or anything out of the usual. She's having a desultory affair with a married co-worker. It is not much. She gets more out of seeing her regulars on screen, at work: the dog walkers patiently cleaning up after their pets, or the cleaning lady listening to music late at night.

One night Jackie spies a man on one of her monitors, skulking around the Red Road district. She knows this man. Not long after her first sighting she learns that he has been released from prison a few years earlier than expected, for "good behavior." His identity and role in Jackie's current, befogged state of grief (we hear something about a husband and a child now absent from Jackie's life) set the film's plot into motion.

Steady but sure, the film's pace makes for an unusually gripping experience, amplified by Arnold's tightly confined sense of space, which rarely allows us to see anything Jackie cannot. Like everything else about "Red Road," from the eerily radioactive cinematography to its insinuatingly subtle sound design, the way Jackie enters the mystery man's orbit unfolds like an unsettling dream. In the end, after the story has gone in directions you cannot predict, the audience is released from that dream. (The Glaswegian dialect spoken in "Red Road" is not easy for casual moviegoers to discern; it's probably best, then, that the film comes with English subtitles.)

A couple of things jell too neatly in the final reel of "Red Road," but those turnabouts are easily forgiven. Dickie's portrayal of a woman emerging from her shell, driven by steely revenge, cannot be overpraised. As the hard-luck trio whose lives Jackie infiltrates, Tony Curran, Martin Compston and Natalie Press bring the tang of real life to their roles.

Arnold's achievement is the first part of "the Advance Party concept," a low-budget, Dogma-like filmmaking project that will present three different features (different directors manipulating a common set of characters) starring Dickie and Curran and others. Time will tell how much the three will interrelate, stylistically or otherwise. No matter. "Red Road" justifies the project in one confident stroke, and Arnold reminds us that the best thrillers don't settle for taking the audience away from their everyday experience; rather, they burrow inward and, by sheer power of cinematic observation, make it hard for us to look away lest we miss something--on a screen or off.


'Red Road'

Written and directed by Andrea Arnold; photographed by Robbie Ryan; edited by Nicolas Chauderge; music by John Frizzell; produced by Carrie Comerford. A Tartan Films release; opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. Running time: 1:53. No MPAA rating: (parents cautioned for nudity, language and some violence).

Jackie - Kate Dickie

Clyde - Tony Curran

Stevie - Martin Compston

April - Natalie Press

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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