Internet trolls have long been the bane of social media journalists and content creators, but rarely do the victims of such attacks get a chance to face their opponents eye-to-eye. In Ivo Van Art’s Dutch language film The Columnist, this scenario plays out to its most outrageous conclusion in a cautionary tale cut from the same cloth as an episode of Black Mirror.
Columnist Femke Boot (Katja Herbers; HBO’s Westworld) is at a critical point in her career. Not only is she plagued with writer’s block just as her book launch date draws near, but the court of public opinion seems to have turned against her. Her lifestyle column normally focuses on such topics as the joys of a soft-boiled egg, but after writing a controversial column decrying Zwarte Piet (a Dutch cultural custom where people don blackface makeup to dress up for the Feast of St. Nicholas celebration), Femke’s popularity takes a nosedive. “People love your columns because they are so familiar, not because you tell them what they should think,” says her agent. Her columns begin attracting comments, but not the kind anyone wants. Everything from name calling, sexist remarks, and threats of violence appear in the digital public square, and Femke can’t seem to stop herself from scrolling through the abuse in a way that may look all too familiar to any viewer who has cyber-stalked an ex.
Things reach a turning point when Femke recognizes her next door neighbor as the author of a particularly nasty comment. Her initial shock and hurt turn to rage after one too many drinks, and Femke starts on a path of vengeance meant to stop her detractors, one troll at a time. Her acts of revenge begin innocently enough, with the destruction of private property, but soon escalate to acts of violence and murder. The first such act is so shocking and unexpected — bloodless and done in broad daylight — that viewers may be taken off guard. Femke feels immediate satisfaction and relief, and her writer’s block clears, too, but it’s not long before she’s scrolling the comments again, and a new kind of serial killer is born.
This darkly humorous techno-horror film subverts expectations by having the prey of social media trolls become the predator. The standard for similar stories, Black Mirror normally features main characters plagued by social media technology that stay in the role of victim throughout. Femke becomes an angel of vengeance, playing out a fantasy with which many viewers will relate. What if you could face an internet bully who has said something mean and make them understand why they’re wrong? Perhaps they would apologize or beg for forgiveness. Screenplay writer Daan Windhorst has taken this relatable scenario and created a plot that is offbeat, violent, and witty.
Katja Herbers as Femke does ample work as the scorned journalist with an inferiority complex. She’s the perfect representation of a type-A female: driven, stressed, and outraged at even hints of slights by others. The camera wisely rests on her hands, where we often see her picking at her nails, revealing her inner anxiety at both her impending deadlines and her distress of feeling unliked. The camera also shows moments when Femke’s eyes pause on an object, such as a dropped can of blood-red tomatoes or an office desk memo holder sharp enough to pierce through skin, perhaps reminding her of the violence of which she is capable.
Most other cast members play minor roles, with two exceptions. Claire Porro plays Anna Boot, Femke’s teen daughter. Like her mother, Anna possesses a keen mind and outspoken views that attract attention from those that think women should be sweet and silent. Porro does a convincing job as a teen girl with a nose for investigation. It’s Anna that discovers her mother’s toolbag of blood-soaked murder weapons and tries to uncover what’s really going on. Likewise, Bram van der Kalen as Steven Dood plays a delightful love interest for Femke. A novelist who writes dark and twisted horror novels, he puts on a brooding front for his public image, donning black fingernails and rimming his eyes with liner. In reality Dood is an old soul who likes to make tea and homemade carbonara. Van der Kalen sells this character, and viewers will delight in the interplay between him and Herbers.
The overall look of the film plays an important role in establishing the Dutch setting and in paving the way for the movie’s shocking visual conclusion. The spaces in the film, whether used for living, working, or teaching, all have that minimalist aesthetic expected from Scandinavian design. The clean lines and peaceful color schemes evoke a mood of calm and balance, creating an ideal setup for any interruption of that balance to wreck visual chaos. Robert van der Hoop’s role as production designer can certainly be recognized here.
The Columnist is the perfect techno-horror for today’s moviegoers. As the world gets ever more divisive, social media outlets allow anonymous users to make disparaging remarks behind a wall of safety with little or no consequences. The Columnist taps into this fear in a way that is incisive and may lead to intriguing conversations after the credits roll. Yet the escalating out-there nature of the murders themselves keeps the material from feeling too heavy. Viewers are in for an intelligent, but still fun, horror ride with Ivo van Art’s The Columnist.
Currently screening during the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official The Columnist festival website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.