Andrea Arnold's Red Road is just such a movie. I hesitate to call it a thriller, because there aren't really shocks or frights lurking around any of the tower block corners where the film takes place. Yet, there is a mystery here, and the more you learn, the more the story will surprise and haunt you.
Jackie (Kate Dickie) works as a CCTV operator, watching a bank of television sets that pick up signals from the cameras placed all around the Scottish neighborhood she lives in. One of a cadre of such officers, she calls in any trouble she sees so policemen can be dispatched to take care of it. We are told very little about Jackie. Arnold avoids scenes of detailed exposition. We know she is lonely, because we see her in her tiny apartment. We know she is estranged from her family, because a hand-scrawled note on the bottom of a wedding invitation tells us so. From conversation, we learn that she has been married before and that something happened to her husband. Whatever that was, it's what has led her down this solitary path, a voyeur of other people's lives, participating in their day-to-day dramas more than she is active in her own.
One day, while Jackie is keeping her eye on a girl she thinks may be a runaway, she sees the face of a man she recognizes. We can tell this discovery chills her, but we don't learn much right away. His name is Clyde (Tony Curran, The Good German), he's been in prison, and he's out earlier than Jackie expected, but what did he do? We're not privy to any of this when Jackie starts stalking him, slowly working her way into his life, and seducing him.
And Red Road is all the better for keeping us in the dark. It's one of those weird films to write about, because I don't want to give anything away. I could have never guessed what Jackie was up to. The resolution of Red Road actually defies my expectations for a standard thriller. If I lay too much out for you, you'll know what to look for, and then all the careful planning Andrea Arnold put into her movie would be for nothing.
There is a dry, somber tone to Red Road. As much as it is a movie about a mystery, about what has happened between these two people, it's also a movie about grief. The past is informing Jackie's present. The hand-held camerawork and the choice to shoot on location with close-to-natural lighting lend that present a real immediacy for the audience. Rather than causing us to feel like we are working toward a neat and clean finale, Red Road gives the viewer the sensation that it's all happening in front of us, even as, from a storytelling standpoint, it keeps us at arm's length. Where others might seduce us with dark shadows or sinister music, Arnold's best resource is our own curiosity. By making us feel like we are watching Jackie without her knowing it, much the way she watches the denizens of Glasgow with her cameras, the director keeps us invested in how it's all going to turn out. It's almost like Neorealist Hitchcock.
Most mysteries these days don't require us to be patient. They don't just give the game away early on, they often do it in the trailer, before we can even buy a ticket. Red Road succeeds by withholding everything, saving each morsel until it will have the most effect, and only then giving us just enough to keep us on the hook until the next surprise. It's quiet and sometimes demanding, but it's oh so worth it when we get where we're going.