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MOVIE REVIEW

In gritty 'Red Road,' she's the watcher and he's being watched

Kate Dickie plays a closed-circuit TV operator who stalks a man she glimpses while monitoring the Red Road area of Glasgow.

More and more it seems we go to the movies to watch people watching people. Voyeurism is hot again, from the lonesome Stasi spook in "The Lives of Others " to Shia LaBeouf re-enacting "Rear Window " in "Disturbia " to Kate Dickie as the heroine of "Red Road ," British director Andrea Arnold's clammy, distressing debut feature and a film with a kick like a horse.

Dickie plays Jackie , a glum, vaguely middle-aged woman who works as a closed-circuit TV operator in a rough neighborhood of Glasgow . Not much is going on in her life except a dead-end affair with a married co-worker (Paul Higgins ). Mostly Jackie sits watching the dozens of CCTV monitors that transmit the daily non-events of the Red Road area. A man walking an aged bulldog. Kids tossing bottles. Men lurching home from pubs.

If she sees something violently untoward, Jackie is supposed to phone the police, and she usually does. One day, though, she catches a glimpse of a particular man and in that instant transforms from a passive official eye to an obsessed techno-stalker. She follows her quarry from surveillance camera to surveillance camera and then on foot from street to street. This isn't Big Brother, it's Little Sister, and maybe more dangerous for that.

There are reasons for Jackie's interest in Clyde (Tony Curran ), but I've probably said too much already. The heroine's compulsion to watch -- it's as though she were waiting for a movie to start -- eventually leads her to acts that are shocking in both their rawness and in what they say about the depths of self-loathing to which a person can sink. "Red Road" also reaffirms the notion that those who break other people are already broken themselves.

Arnold shoots using a grainy, low-rent stock and translates the thick Glaswegian accents with English subtitles; the film itself feels like unsavory surveillance. As the story progresses, and we come to understand the source of Jackie's torment, we also get a sympathetic glimpse into the lives of Clyde, his roommate Stevie (Martin Compston , the teenage hero of Ken Loach's "Sweet Sixteen "), and Stevie's girlfriend April (Nathalie Press , from "My Summer of Love ").

They and their friends stagger from party to party, unable to connect the dots in a way that solves the miserable puzzle of their lives. Maybe they could if they saw the CCTV footage, although it doesn't seem to have helped Jackie. She doesn't even know whether she's drawn to Clyde for payback or for the stink of danger he gives off. (Both actors give performances that can only be called feral.)

As Arnold gets into the grit of her characters, leading Jackie toward the explosion she and we crave and then beyond, she drops the voyeurism theme almost entirely, a bait-and-switch that doesn't cripple "Red Road" so much as snip off its richest and eeriest thread. The movie trades the paranoia of modern omni-cam culture for a tighter, more personal drama, and while it sticks with you, you feel the missed opportunity like a phantom leg.

There's an interesting back story here, though. "Red Road" is the first film in a trilogy called the Advance Party concept, the brainchild of Danish filmmakers Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen . Each of the three films will come at the same group of characters from a different angle and with a different storyline; presumably the galvanizing pub scene in "Red Road" in which Stevie thrashes his father will be explained in a later movie.

In keeping with their roots in Dogme 95 , Scherfig and Jensen laid down rules for their first-time filmmakers to hurdle: The action has to stay in Scotland, all the characters have to appear in all the films, the director doesn't get choice of casting. (Not surprisingly, longtime cinema sadist Lars von Trier had a finger in this pie early on.)

Scottish director Morag McKinnon is reportedly at work on the second, as-yet-untitled movie, but Denmark's Mikkel Norgaard has dropped out of making the third. It's not hard to understand why. The idea behind the Advance Party concept is that rules can set you free. In "Red Road," the rules may have wrested a first film away from its director.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae /movies/blog.

'Related'

Red Road

Directed by: Andrea Arnold

Written by: Arnold , based on characters developed by Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen

Starring: Kate Dickie , Tony Curran , Martin Compston , Nathalie Press

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 113 minutes

Rated: R (strong sexuality, language, violence)

In English, with subtitles

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