The Orwellian assertion that Big Brother is watching you is no longer an idle threat: Technology and security concerns have created a network of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in cities around the world. But, as in the prescient 1984, Red Road proves there's always the human element to muck up the monolith.
Spending her days watching a bank of CCTV monitors, Jackie Morrison (Kate Dickie) is more of a compassionate Big Sister, looking over the residents of a dodgy neighborhood in Glasgow, Scotland. For this City Eye employee, surveillance means safety, and Jackie's instinct to protect is on high alert.
A quiet, self-contained widow, Jackie's careful to keep her attention focused outward, onto the strangers she observes, while ignoring her own deep, suppressed pain.
Then she spies ex-con Clyde Henderson (Tony Curran) blithely walking through her neighborhood the one she oversees, not the one she lives in and something snaps. The comfortable voyeur is compelled to leave her secure nest and get down to ground level to confront the man who happens to be connected to her own loss.
In her feature film debut, writer-director Andrea Arnold takes a cool, Hitchcockian approach to her tale of obsession, in both its tone and the way Jackie methodically pushes past her own boundaries. Though Red Road has a very naturalistic feel to it, there's a methodically planned precision to the widescreen images.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan emphasizes the difference between seeing and experiencing by shooting Clyde's environment in slightly blurry, oversaturated colors, and the one Jackie sees via CCTV as clean, crisp and balanced.
When Jackie enters that world she's spent so much time gazing upon, an area that seems simultaneously new and run-down, her careful composure gives way, and a seemingly reckless need begins to guide her. As she pursues the menacing Clyde with single-minded determination, Arnold builds suspense by keeping the question of who is in actual danger tantalizingly vague.
Arnold (who won an Oscar for her 2003 short Wasp) creates a milieu defined by emotional reticence, and then shatters it with an intense, explicit sex scene that reveals a lot more than flesh. What binds Jackie and Clyde together has remained unspoken for so long that its eventual exposure alters them both.
Red Road isn't a traditional mystery about the uncovering of secrets. Its focus is deeper: coping with the aftermath of loss, and the benefits of not keeping your distance.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7:30 pm, Thursday, Oct. 25, and 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Oct. 26-27.