It doesn’t take much time on social media to realize that the distance and anonymity of various platforms make people way more comfortable to say horrific things than they would in person. The lack of real-world consequences only further emboldens people. (A commenter once told me he hoped my entire family died in a fire in front of me because a YouTube embed of a trailer was geo-locked where he lived. Shit gets wild.) It’s exponentially worse for women on the internet. And bloody, pitch-black Danish satire The Columnist has some thoughts on the matter.
Femke Boot (Katja Herbers, Westworld) is an author and columnist. No matter what she writes, she’s besieged by a barrage of insults, threats, and assorted hate. If she goes political, it’s, “You communist bitch, what do you know, stay in your fucking lane.” Even such innocuous topics as the pleasures of a soft-boiled egg elicit promises of rape, sexual violence, beheading, and all sorts of other goodies. This constant barrage terrifies her. Does the Twitter troll who claims to know where she lives really have her address? Will he turn up one night and make good on his threats? But she’s also addicted, unable to look away, no matter how everyone offers the well-intentioned advice to never read the comments. (It’s so much easier said than done.)
And then things escalate. Both in the sense of the online harassment as well as Femke’s reaction. She’s finally had enough and decides to do something about it. And when she does, just pray you didn’t hit send on that nasty Facebook comment. Her revenge is swift and bloody, and as much damn fun as it is vicious.
Herbers shines as Femke. Harried and vaguely afraid all the time, she plays up the innate terror of these threats, the frustration with a world that views them as harmless words with no real potential for violence, police and authority figures who dismiss and discount her reactions as overwrought female troubles, and finally the confidence and resolve to act, first to protect herself, then out of a satiric, rage-fueled glee.
Director Ivo van Aart creates a tableau that matches Femke’s mood and inner workings. Early, as she sits alone in a dimly lit house, reading calls for her death and accusations she’s a pedophile, he shoots and frames in a way that enhances her creeping paranoia. Is she really alone? Does that dark hallway hide something sinister or is it just a hallway, same as always? The staging matches her evolution step for step, and van Aart leaves with an enduring image for the ages.
Pushed forward with a critical, manic energy, threads get lost along the way. Femke’s been blocked on a book project with a rapidly approaching deadline, but her new-found murder hobby finds her writing like crazy. Part of the catalyst, this fades into the background with a shrug. A red-herring aside where her outspoken daughter Anna (Clair Porro) suspects Femke’s new edgelord-horror-writer-who-is-actually-surprisingly-nice boyfriend Steven Dood (which translates to Steven Death, played by Bram van der Kelen) of her mother’s crimes plays like more of a genre obligation than a narrative necessity and it’s treated with short shrift and little interest.
In general, The Columnist feels a bit mixed with what it actually wants to say. It’s about freedom of speech, but also how that freedom doesn’t come sans consequences. That’s the basis for the entire tale and it extols consideration of how your words land and weight they carry. But at the same time, a subplot with Anna going up against a draconian administrator about what can and can’t be said in the school newspaper advocates for absolute freedom of speech and against any repercussions for your words. Of course, it’s a messy topic, and the film reflects that, but while it wants to say a lot, it never takes much of a stance beyond a “be nicer to each other” plea.
Still, despite issues, The Columnist uses biting humor to create a scathing indictment of the way we treat each other in this Very-Online world in which we live and examine the real-world toll of the seemingly empty words we so often throw into the social media void with little consideration. The film screens as part of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival. [Grade: B]