What’s the perfect job for a lonely person? CCTV operator of course. You can follow people’s lives as if you know them, play God and stop bad things from happening to them. But sometimes the bad things happen anyway, and you’re powerless. Jackie (Kate Dickie) sees schoolgirls stabbing people and urban foxes flashing in front of cars as she guards the dizzying, doomed high rises at Red Road. One day, she zooms in on someone from her past, Clyde - that bad things have happened, and are going to happen again, isn’t in doubt.
Don’t expect a straight thriller; the inexorable build of threat and dread is more subtle than that. The story constantly mutates as Jackie’s motivation confounds expectation. Voyeurism flirts with intimacy then tips into stalking as she trains her camera on Clyde (the excellent Tony Curran), sparking all sorts of moral complexities along the way. Yes, the film is gritty, in that there’s a sex scene that’s realistic rather than romantic, and it features real Glaswegians as extras. But it’s also absolutely stunning. Glasgow is rendered alien then sharply intimate as it shifts in and out of focus. Screens are always more vivid than real life for Jackie, except when dazzling flashes of skies and landscapes hint at escape, and maybe redemption.
Kate Dickie, in her feature debut, quietly dominates the film, drifting between scenes looking like a female - and much more handsome - Bobby Gillespie. It’s a mesmerising performance, delivered with the precision of a medieval craftsman’s masterpiece. The same goes for director Andrea Arnold. Her grip doesn’t slacken for an instant - one particular plot strand could have turned out very dodgily indeed for feminists, but viewed as a whole the film offers a trenchant critique of gender issues in Scotland. Arnold can even use a sick dog without it turning mawkish, for heaven’s sake! And although there’s a neatness to the ultimate pay off, Red Road asks far more questions than it answers.
Watching the film reminded me of going to the GFT as a teenager to see my first arthouse movies. It reawakened that same invigorating feeling of discovering that film can do more than tell a story, it can take you startling places you never thought you could go, places that are fictional but completely authentic. It was like discovering a wonderful, compelling novel by a writer who somehow gets to the root of everything you always knew was important but couldn’t articulate. That’s the highest praise I can give.