Andrea Arnold's first feature-length film, Red Road, follows the mysterious pursuit of a man that Jackie Morrison (Kate Dickie) first notices on the screen while surveying her territory. Jackie's job as a CCTV security monitor gives her a literal, state-sanctioned gaze often only reserved for men—using her computer controls, she zooms our view onto this man having sex, initiating her quest for him in the 'real world.' À-la-Peeping Tom, this gaze has immediate erotic potential that allows us to read Jackie as a sexual voyeur, until we are corrected. This first 'meeting' thus posits Jackie as a weird participant in the Balornock community, developing special affections for members of the public whose repeated presence builds a narrative (man with sick dog; dancing cleaner) and an intimate knowledge which is entirely monodirectional, as we become sharply aware when Jackie runs into one of them off the job as a stranger. Here, she again becomes an anonymous visual street-presence, an unprivileged piece of the view from the Red Road residences.
As implied by the theatrical release image, the proliferation of CCTV and the high-rise building should both be read as surveillant structures. Red Roadrefers to where most of the film was shot: at the Red Road flats in Balornock, Glasgow, which were the tallest residential buildings in Europe at the time of their construction. The array of windows presented by the face of the high-rise presents an obvious parallel to Jackie's wall of screens in the surveillance room, a kind of hyper-neighborhood watch, the kind of viewing situation of Rear Window but anonymized by its magnitude. "What a lovely view," remarks Jackie, looking out at one high-rise from the vantage point of its twin. For these windows are also eyes, elevation creating a superior looking-point not equal to Jackie's surveillance room but akin to it. In one scene, these different looks are dynamically staged: in one of her screens, a couple kisses on the street, while a cleaner several floors up looks down with curiosity, perhaps envy, herself caught on the CCTV in the neat frame of the lit window. We watch all this from our own further position of remove.
And Red Road's view is pretty bleak. This is a bleakness partly Danish, adhering for the most part to Dogme 95 style (Red Road is shot entirely handheld with natural light), making for a quite singularly stark experience. Kate Dickie's tight-lipped performance of personal hell bears similarities to Lars von Trier's trilogy star Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Red Roadwas the intentional first piece in a trilogy named 'Advance Party,' a concept of three films to be made by different first-time directors following a set of rules proposed by executive producers Gillian Berrie, Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, and informed by conversations between themselves and von Trier. But it is a uniquely British bleakness too—a sociopolitical bleakness that doesn’t over-indulge in visual depictions of impoverishment. Arnold's childhood on a council estate in Dartford has informed practically all of her other works; Wasp (2003), Fish Tank (2009), and Wuthering Heights (2011) all feature female protagonists living in poverty-stricken English edge-lands, but Red Road offers a distinctly Scottish expression of British hardship, descended from Bill Douglas's iconic trilogy, and sharing his sparse use of sound and rejection of anything resembling visual decadence. The high-rise setting updates this vision, a contemporary icon of class divides as in J.G. Ballard's High-Rise (1975).
Le Corbusier had lofty social ambitions for the high-rise building; Red Roadbrings us back down to earth, where its hasty British deployment as a quick-fix for social housing shortages meant rushed construction practices leading to cracks soon forming, steel corroding, and damp penetrating the walls—destabilizing the buildings and resulting in disasters such as Ronan Point's partial collapse in 1968 and, of course, Grenfell, which makes Red Road all the more poignant a decade later. Degraded conditions exacerbated social problems; break-ins, vandalism and muggings became common, aided by the buildings' concealed areas, internal corridors and dark corners, and which the increased presence of police and CCTV seemed to do little to abate. Common practice with local authorities was to place 'problem families' in the same blocks, which Lynsey Hanley argues in Estates only led to "further alienation, nihilism and a creeping sense of lawlessness" . Red Roadproved timely; with high-rise social housing quickly becoming regarded as a net failure and being replaced or repriced with apartments for wealthier 'urban professionals,' the first block of the Red Road Flats was demolished by controlled explosion in June 2012.
Red Road does away with the trope of the eerily anonymous CCTV presence, the faceless eye, by focusing its story on the (very human) watcher. Yet pervasive surveillance nonetheless feels menacing because of its peculiar absence alongside its omnipresence, failing most times to make meaningful interventions in the often harrowingly troubled lives of the people it monitors, which take place chiefly behind literal or symbolic closed doors. Just as Jackie's awareness of surveillance functions allows her to present and conceal aspects of reality by tailoring her actions to interior and exterior space, thereby manipulating an evidentiary narrative, we are able to see Jackie's own movements, and then manipulations, with visual completeness but without ever understanding her inner motives until a face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and indeed heart-to-heart conversation at the film's climax. It is humanizing, but humanity was never really up for question here—only the threat posed to it by selective and partial vantage, by social management at abstract levels, by people as figures moving across a surface.