In Andrea Arnold's washed-out Scottish melodrama Red Road, Kate Dickie plays a watcher for Glasgow's "City Eye," a camera-connected security station that monitors criminal activity around the towering Red Road apartment buildings. Because Dickie is supposed to call the police whenever she sees anything suspicious, she half-imagines herself as the arbiter of the lives she follows on her hundreds of tiny screens. If she spots a couple having sex in an alley, she lets it go, because she's partial to quickies herself. But when she notices that the male half of the couple looks a lot like a convicted criminal who had a direct hand in destroying her marriage years earlier, Dickie can't just ignore it. She follows him with her remote-control cameras, and when their range proves too limited, Dickie clocks out and hits the streets to practice some private surveillance.
Anders Thomas Jensen and Lone Scherfig created Red Road's characters as part of the Dogme-like "Advance Party" concept, in which three fledgling feature directors are assigned the same actors, the same setting, and the same essential narrative circumstances, and told to create three different films. Arnold's is the first, coming on the heels of her acclaimed short films (one of which, "Wasp," won a live-action-short Oscar). Like Lynne Ramsay—another veteran of the shorts circuit—Arnold likes watching people think more than listening to them talk, and she employs an intense, close-up-heavy style that holds on the heroine while keeping the bigger picture just out of focus. In Red Road, the style suits the subject, because Dickie sometimes gets so preoccupied with electronically trailing her favorite people that she misses the real crimes taking place.
Red Road has a mesmerizing, grainy look, and its premise and its plot present a lot of possibilities. But there appears to be an underlying struggle between the movie Arnold wanted to make—an elliptical study of obsession and voyeurism—and the necessary backstory that Jensen and Scherfig provide. As long as Arnold can avoid giving any reason for Dickie's strange behavior, Red Road remains creepy and hypnotic, but as soon as Arnold explains what's going on, the movie's structure collapses into the rubble of cliché. So Arnold delays and delays, and eventually even the delays become tiresome and self-indulgent. Red Road is a promising debut by a talented director, but with luck, next time, Arnold will be in a real position of authority, and not just manning someone else's watchtower.