A few years ago, while driving home from a movie one night, my family and I were almost hit head-on by a truck. One minute we were casually going about our lives, talking about the film we'd just seen, and the next moment headlights were coming at us and in a split second the truck swerved away from us and went on its way. We called the police to report what we'd witnessed and then went home and never heard another thing about it.
Every day, people die because of another person's inebriation or texting or loss of concentration. It's common and tragic and families are left to cope with the devastating aftermath. They have to live with the what ifs. What if that person had just put the phone down, what if that man had not decided to drive after drinking so much, what if that woman had just gone the speed limit. The people who commit these crimes not only harm others, they break a contract with society, they fail to do the things that make society possible, to abide by rules and regulations put in place for the public good.
Andrea Arnold's Red Road examines the ways in which a life is damaged and disfigured because of a traffic accident. Jackie is a CCTV operator who, one day, while doing her job and monitoring the cameras sees a man that she recognizes, a man who destroyed her life. He has recently been released from prison. For what, we do not know.
In fact, a strength of the film is how it builds suspense through the simple act of withholding information, forcing us to watch and unravel the story. Jackie begins to follow the man. She has encounters with him at a bar and a party. He does not recognize her. So the viewer is left to wonder how the two are connected if she knows him but he doesn't know her. This confusion has a propulsive force. It kept me baffled and intrigued throughout the film.
The two seem to be engaging in a mutual seduction. The man, named Clyde, makes clear his sexual interest in Jackie, who goes along with the seduction but wants something more than sex. Her motivation is revenge. The climactic sex scene between Clyde and Jackie is imbued with an unsettling eroticism. What has this man done to her and how should we feel as she is pleasured by him? Why doesn't he recognize this woman who holds an intense loathing for him? Why does she hate him? Should we hate him too?
The ultimate purpose of the sex is so that Jackie can frame Clyde for rape. She wants him put back in the prison he's just left. She wants him out of society so that he can no longer endanger other lives. She is willing to go to extreme lengths to not only avenge her unknown tragedy but to protect society as a whole from this man. She hits her face with a rock, puts Clyde's semen inside her body, and runs from his apartment to the police department. Clyde is arrested.
Only at this point do we finally learn the truth of what happened to Jackie. The truth comes obliquely at first. Jackie goes through a box of things that once belonged to a child. We watch as she puts stuffed animals and other soft objects into a pair of little girl's jeans and a pink hoodie and holds the makeshift doll to her chest, clutching it as though it is a real child. I realized immediately that this was a film about grief, that Jackie had lost a child and every choice she had made was motivated by this shattering loss.
Jackie drops the charges against Clyde and confronts him on the street. She wants to be heard. She tells him that he's the one who killed her husband and daughter when he drove into a bus stop while high on drugs. She was in court, but he never looked at her. It was for this crime that he was sentenced to prison. He attempts to flee Jackie at first, but he finally lets her speak, lets her have the confrontation she's been wanting. He has a casual attitude about it. He's done his time and besides these things happen every day. People die all the time, what's so special about any individual loss? These are not his words. They are mine, but they are the subtext of his response to Jackie.
He can't change the past. He can't take back what he did and so a woman stands on a street corner, screaming to be heard and no one listens. He killed her family and she wanted to do violence to him and she almost went through with it but stopped herself, dropped the charges, walked away from the edge. Clyde walks away, down the street. Clyde has always been able to walk away from the destruction he causes. Jackie is left to go on without her daughter and husband. Clyde didn't know them. Clyde will never know them, but he is the one who obliterated them.
In the final scene, Jackie visits her dead husband's parents. They welcome her in. We see photos from happier times in Jackie's life. She's smiling with her husband and daughter. There are pictures of the little girl. We see bits and pieces of the life that was shattered. Jackie cries, the in-laws comfort her. She's no longer consumed with Clyde. Now she's just a grieving widow, a woman without her daughter, trying to live with the pain and absence.
Jackie's pursuit of Clyde was more than just revenge, it was a reprieve from all-consuming grief that was, nonetheless, enacted in the name of grief. She was trying to put Clyde away for her husband and child, but she has to accept the reality that Clyde is not in prison. He's out in the same world, the same society, as her and there's not a thing she can do about it. And that's her sentence. Clyde did his time and it's over, but her grief is never over.
When she leaves the home, our last image is of her walking down the street as seen by a CCTV camera. It seems fitting that Jackie, like all of us, has gone from the watcher to the watched. The film itself honed in on her individual story, showing the power of cinema to humanize, but the CCTV camera zooms out to the larger society and Jackie is one of many, a random woman walking down a busy street, under surveillance but not really seen, blending in, melting away, carrying her grief and her heartbreak and her memories.