Revenge and Grief in Andrea's Arnold's Red Road

 Note: This review contains spoilers

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.

Unspeakable Grief

At work, I sit with a group of women during lunch. They are all older than me, in their late thirties and early forties with husbands, ex-husbands, and children. I am 26. One day, they talk about people they've lost. The women believe the dead communicate with us, that they send signs, that they are always with us. The women think death is a continuation of life. They tell their stories. I listen. I do not speak because I don't believe the same things as they do, and I don't want my non-belief to be misconstrued as judgment or condemnation. I stay silent.

I realize that I cannot speak my father's death. I can only write it. I know, in that moment of sitting with the women, that if I say he is dead, that my father died when I was sixteen years old, if I attempt to tell my story, I will be swallowed by darkness. I will sob. I will lose control. I will gasp for breath. Nearly ten years he has been dead and I cannot talk about it. Where would I begin? And how insulting to nonchalantly mention his death on a lunch break to complete strangers. How terrifying to watch them nod their heads and pretend to understand.

This is the gap between me and other people, the gap between silence and speech, between what can be communicated and what must stay locked inside me or only exist in written language. I can't even imagine myself saying the words "My father died" to the women. My father is dead. How? Please tell me, how did my life become this moment of saying my father is dead, that he was once a person and is now nothing? No, I could never speak it. Just to write it devastates me. Just to live it is annihilating. It's as though I carry this secret with me, the secret of my father's death, this pulsating wound that I can't heal because I can't touch it or bandage it. I can't even look at it. My writing is the only space in which I can confront it and even then language creates a distance between me and the horrific truth.

Yes, in that moment with the women I could have shared my secret and tried to make a connection with them. I could have said that I do not believe in God or the supernatural, but I believe in humanity, in the meaning we create for ourselves. But the cost would have been too great. We should not have to flay ourselves to make connection. We should not have to always confess every dark pain to other people. I choose when and where and how I talk about grief. I choose to write it, to explore it on this blog and in my personal writing. I have no desire to sit with a group of people and attempt to vocalize my grief. I keep it inside where I can control it and live with it and not lose my life to it.


It's such a contradiction, what I am on the inside and what I show the world.

I am made of art. I can't exist in the real world. I dissolve.

Have I ever been real? Life is so immaterial, so untouchable. I don't feel solid anymore.

So alone, always looking for another soul I recognize and identify with. What would it be like to find that?

I miss the sound of the rain on my window, the smell of the earth at night. Home.

I know nothing lasts, but then I live it and it's suddenly real and unbearable.

At times I feel like my father, like I am this copy of him in the world.

Did he know he was beloved?

Maybe I think I'll see him one day and show him this grief as proof that I didn't forget, that our bond is deeper than death. But I'll never see him. He'll never know.

Were we ever real?

Who will mourn him if not me? Who will keep him alive?

I don't write memories. I write the devastation of knowing that memories are all I have left.

What's important is to hold on to yourself.

I am not this person on the outside that the world sees. I am not real. I am something else entirely that I cannot name. I am both made of language and beyond language.

The days go by and take my life with them.

But this is your life, these moments and long stretches of nothingness. How little of it matters and yet all of it matters.

More loss than I can bear. How to make a home in loss? How to endure it? How to forgive yourself for forgetting and overlooking and losing it all?

No time. I need more time. A machine that creates time.

How to accept your own vulnerability? How to make peace with all that is beyond your control, all that could disfigure and end your life, the fate and chance that change everything in a moment?

We live and die in mystery.