Home Video Hell
Home Video Hell is where filmic outcasts—straight-to-video, straight-to-VOD, or barely released—spend eternity.
The condemned: The Columnist (2020)
The plot: Femke Boot (Westworld and Evil star Katja Herbers), a Dutch newspaper columnist, is dealing with writers’ block, and facing daily waves of harassment from online trolls, thanks in part to her personal campaign for civility in public discourse. Meanwhile, her daughter (Claire Porro) is launching her own benefit at school to raise awareness of freedom of speech being threatened around the world, and Femke is struggling to stay off social media for her own mental health. But when she reports violent threats being made against her to the police, she’s met with a patronizing recommendation to to “not look at those websites any more.” Instead, she notices that one of her trolls lives nearby, and begins to research the people abusing her online.
The twist: After a neighbor, whose noisy home-improvement projects drive the brittle columnist to distraction as she tries to write, climbs on the roof to begin pounding apart yet another renovation, Femke loses her cool, storms out onto the ledge, and shoves him to his death. Realizing no one saw, she removes one of his fingers as a kind of trophy. Suddenly, her writer’s block is over, she gets more involved in her daughter’s activism, and even begins a burgeoning relationship with Steven (Bram van der Kelen), a publicly outspoken writer of grisly thrillers who turns out to be a nerdy, sensitive soul in person. But the confidence doesn’t last; soon, she’s back to obsessively checking the hate-tweets she receives, and after deciding to confront one of the men in person, kills him in his own kitchen in the middle of the night. Cue the montage of murder: Femke is gleefully taking out her trolls one by one—and keeping a finger from each, of course—while her career, relationship, and family life all flourish, presumably thanks to the newfound happiness she’s found as a serial killer of online assholes.
As with all good things, it can’t last. First, one of her detractors finds an old column of hers in which she mentions a relationship she had with a three-years-younger guy as a teenager, and decides to launch a smear campaign against her as a “pedophile.” (Needless to say, her book publisher loves the controversy.) Next, her daughter finds the bag of tools she’s been using to execute her tormentors, and wrongfully grows suspicious of Steven. But most worrying, an extremely close call in which Femke is almost defeated by one of the jerks she confronts convinces her to try and set aside her bloodthirsty habit for good. She decides to cut the cord, literally: symbolically snipping her internet connection, Femke settles into an existence blissfully free of the mistake of “reading the comments.” Or rather, she does until Steven accidentally shows her a particularly inspired one, and Femke realizes she has identified the person leading the smear campaign. Will she capitulate to her murderous urges one more time? Will her daughter figure out what’s been happening? Will that box of fingers she’s been keeping ever come up again? If you’ve literally ever seen a single movie, you likely know the answer.
Over-the-top box copy: The front of the home-video release is completely devoid of even a tagline, its only addition to the cover art a lonely little “certified fresh” button from Rotten Tomatoes. But turn it over, and you’ll get a blitzkrieg of endorsements, a half-dozen blurbs praising the movie (including, yes, one from this very site, who referenced it briefly in our coverage of last year’s Fantastic Fest) for being a damn good time. Are these plaudits mostly accurate? Yes, but maybe we should unpack why.
The descent: When I first received the press release for this movie, the subject heading was “A Journalist With A Serious Grudge Against Online Trolls Fights Back,” and, well, that was that. See, if you’re a person who has a pulse and the ability to enter words onto a screen and then share them on the internet, you have almost certainly been told to go fuck yourself at some point. And if you’re someone who has regularly tweeted out opinions on pop culture, you have undoubtedly encountered at least one instance of a random avatar (like 40% chance it’s an anime character) tell you that you suck as a person for those opinions. And if you are someone who has the temerity to have a job writing lengthy critical assessments of film, TV, music, books, or any other form of media, odds are extremely good that you’ve had at least one death threat. (Those odds increase one hundredfold if you’ve written something critical of Taylor Swift, the DCEU, Beyoncé, or a YA author.) It’s been a couple of months now since my last one, but it always feels like it just happened—and you never know when another is coming.
In other words, I may have a slight personal investment in this particular brand of revenge fantasy. Do I actually want to kill anyone? God, no. I can’t even raise my voice at most people, unless they’ve stolen the last piece of candy off the snack table at work. (Your uppance will come, A.A. Dowd.) I get sick to my stomach at the thought of being mean to anyone, even Republicans—so much so, that I will delete tweets where I say Tucker Carlson deserves to be put in a cave somewhere he can no longer harm the bedrock of democracy and basic logic, because what if he sees them and has hurt feelings? (I do think that, though.) But a simplistic daydream of revenge? That’s the good stuff; it hurts no one, and offers the kind of transitive-property thrills that make one, if not satisfied, then briefly secure in the knowledge that nobody likes trolls. They might like themselves, but even that’s probably a fifty-fifty proposition. And even with all that explanation for why I’m drawn to this film, I don’t even get one-hundredth of the online hate of my female coworkers. They’ve earned an even more bloodthirsty movie than this one.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Katja Herbers is a terrific actor, but not someone I would’ve had on a list of, “Oh, that person stars in this? Then I’ve got to see it!” But after watching her bludgeon some of the worst humanity has to offer, I might be changing my tune on that one. Also, I’m going to check out her show Evil, now, because I’m told it’s worth it, even though it requires a stupid Paramount+ subscription. (On an unrelated note, does anyone have a Paramount+ account I can borrow?)
The execution: Is it wrong that I want this movie to have less of a moral compass? The Columnist wants to be on the right side of its own ethics, which, fair enough, but it does mean we don’t get much opportunity to wallow in the symbolic joy of seeing trolls annihilated by a vengeful woman. It’s a good movie, which wisely steers away from falling into camp or winking at the camera. It’s a well-crafted bit of nihilistic fun, and I’d be happy to watch it again.
And yet. It keeps reminding you Femke’s a bad person for doing this, which, no shit. The movie is sophisticated enough to show that anyone who’d start murdering people for saying mean things about them online isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue to begin with. Rather than some innocent saint, Femke is kind of a brittle jerk who fancies herself a good person—or maybe just better than those around her. When her daughter protests Femke’s dim view of the world, saying, “You don’t think anyone’s nice,” Femke immediately responds in the affirmative: “No one is nice, Anna.” Not exactly Ted Lasso, over here. And rather than just politely asking her neighbor to keep the volume down at certain times, she sullenly nurses a grudge, and then anonymously takes a hammer to his lovingly built new fence. His response: coming over with some nice baked ham as a gift for his next-door neighbor. She throws it in the trash, like a real Ms. Grouchypants. Although, the most entertaining example of her honest thoughts comes when Anna reminds her words hurt less than rocks, and Femke’s reply is that maybe that weird kid from Anna’s grade school deserved to be hit with rocks:
So when Femke does start offing people, The Columnist doesn’t exactly revel in the violence—for the most part, anyway. Her first planned kill is solid entertainment, largely because the guy turns out to be exactly as big of an asshole as he seems online. Here’s the showdown between Femke and her troll, complete with cookware-as-murder-weapon.
But even though it ultimately condemns its own sadistic antihero, The Columnist does have a sense of humor at points, largely when it contrasts the life-or-death stakes of its protagonist with the mundanity of the world around her, such as when she gets stuck behind a garbage truck while en route to a kill. Or when the film tries to highlight the irony of someone who believes in kindness and freedom of the press hunting down dudes who say bad stuff online, as in a great scene cross-cutting between her stalking a guy with a gun while her daughter delivers a high-minded speech she wrote about the importance of letting people say anything they want without fear of retribution. There’s an excellent moment when Femke decides that her daughter’s headmaster at school has crossed the line, and is now worthy of execution. As some tense, pulse-quickening music builds in the background, she grabs her bag of weapons, heads to her car, and starts it up, ready to enact vengeance. Which is when the stereo turns on:
There are a number of great moments like that, all of which add up to an enjoyable brutal time. But still, the film chooses a side, rather than just letting the events play out and refraining from reminding you know this is bad behavior. If you need that spelled out for you, there are probably bigger issues going on that require your immediate availing yourself of a good therapist. Also, after Femke’s boyfriend Steven moves in with her, they decide working elbow-to-elbow at the same desk each day is the way to go, which honestly would drive anyone to murder, justifiably so. And more importantly, just look at the damn layout of the room in Femke’s home that serves as the office:
She has a small desk, empty except for their two laptops, sitting in the middle of the room. Not pushed up against the window, Not holding so much as, say, a picture of her daughter; just a center-aligned table, by itself. Steven should’ve taken one look at that and known he was dealing with an unstable person.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: While it’s entertaining, it’s probably not vicious or stylistically daring enough to really catch on as a cult film. But it might be a nice thing for anyone employed in digital media to have on hand as a way to decompress after a long day of getting called a worthless piece of shit online.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Sadly, no, as I would’ve like to hear exactly what movie the creative team thought they were making, and if the one in their heads is as even-keeled as how the final product turned out.