Nothing is what it seems in Red Road, a wonderfully restrained thriller that marks the feature debut of British writer-director Andrea Arnold. Jackie (a fierce Kate Dickie) works as a surveillance camera operator, studying closed-circuit feeds streaming from Glasgow's streets. Her life is mysterious without being spectacular; for one thing, she lives alone but wears a wedding ring. Clearly, she's had a tragic past, and her present is haunted by the specter of unfinished business - but what, exactly? And who is the mysterious man (Tony Curran) she pursues after spotting him on one of her monitors?
"The feedback I'm getting is that a lot of people don't work it out exactly until the end," Arnold told me over the phone from Canada, where we missed meeting at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. "I do sometimes think, 'Oh god, was I too subtle?' "
Being too subtle is a problem more directors should have. Arnold's gift for capturing complicated characters and gritty urban settings was first displayed in Wasp, her 2003 Oscar-winning short film. In it impoverished young mother Zoe (Red Road costar Nathalie Press) parks her unsettlingly large brood in the parking lot of a pub after she determines it's high time for a child-free date night. Near-tragedy ensues, but through it all Zoe remains sympathetic, not pathetic, despite the questionable decisions she makes along the way. This quality is shared by Red Road's Jackie.
"I knew I was taking things far by her behaving in a way that you didn't completely understand. That was a risk of people running out of patience [with her]," Arnold said of Jackie, whose aloof demeanor makes her actions, including hooking up with a man she apparently hates, all the more surprising. "I think it takes a while to get to know her. But I like characters that are not so easy or straightforward."
Arnold's interest in complex characters brings depth to her stories, which on the surface seem to simply follow the daily lives of rather ordinary people. "I think all human beings are very complicated in their circumstances and their environments - sometimes people don't always behave in the best way. It doesn't mean to say that they're bad," she said. "I like seeing people that may not be easily likable to start. But then when you get to understand them more, when you see them in a more three-dimensional way, then you at least understand them, or you have empathy for them rather than immediately making a judgment about them."
Though she fielded suggestions to turn Wasp into her first feature, she was set on Red Road - even after she won the Oscar. It's the first product of Advance Party, a concept project in which three directors will make films featuring the same group of characters, but each with distinct stories.
"Zentropa [cofounded by Danish director Lars von Trier] and [Scotland's] Sigma Films had the idea of making films with rules, a bit like the Dogme films. Zentropa were very much involved in the Dogme thing. They were looking for filmmakers who hadn't made a feature film before, and they saw Wasp when it premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival," Arnold recalled. "They rang me up, and it went from there."
Danish filmmakers Anders Thomas Jensen and Lone Scherfig sketched out the characters, who are required to appear in all the films and be played by the same actors.
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