The Columnist, 2020.
Directed by Ivo van Aart.
Starring Katja Herbers, Genio de Groot, Rein Hofman, and Bram van der Kelen.
Columnist and author Femke is flooded with anonymous nasty messages and death threats on social media. One day she has enough and decides to take revenge.
Social media-minded horror films are a dime a dozen these days, making it increasingly tough for any to stand out among the pile. A crackerjack central performance certainly helps, however, in the case of Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist.
Writer’s block-riddled newspaper reporter and author Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) finds herself bombarded with vitriolic messages and even death threats on Twitter, prompting her to investigate the people behind the messages, with ultimately violent consequences. A newly empowered Femke now takes it upon herself to mete out grisly vengeance on those who hide their grotesque views behind an online avatar.
This is a film which tap-dances on a curious political tightrope, because while it thoroughly demonises those who use the Internet as a sounding board for their own offensive bile, it’s also deeply entrenched in the freedom of speech debate, considering where precisely we as individuals are willing to draw the line.
In an opening scene where Femke appears on a talk show, she asks, “Why can’t we all have different opinions and be nice about it?,” a stunningly optimistic – or rather, naive – mindset which is thoroughly dismantled over the next 80-something minutes.
For many, especially those of Femke’s age and above who actually remember a time before the Internet existed, it still isn’t accepted as a facet of “real life.” Rather, it’s perceived as a guilt-free facsimile in which our id can be indulged free of consequences – which, of course, isn’t at all true today.
When Femke registers a complaint about the online abuse, the cops just tell her to back off from social media, while her friends tell her not to read the comments. Yet in our modern world, where people working in the media are effectively “brands” unto themselves, is that really a viable option?
Screenwriter Daan Windhorst smartly deconstructs the disparity between a person and their online persona, best realised through Femke’s friendly neighbour who, in fact, turns out to be one of her most vocal critics. Ironically, it is the severity of this revelation which prompts Femke herself to become a killer far divorced from her civil public profile.
But social media by its nature makes black-and-white sketches of us all; our personalities are reduced to character-limited “takes” to be dissected by others in similarly circumscribed fashion. Naturally it isn’t long before Femke’s virtual enemies begin digging up her past tweets, seeking to commodify controversy by taking advantage of society’s tireless obsession with “optics” (see: James Gunn’s temporary firing from Guardians of the Galaxy 3).
Yet The Columnist accompanies its comments about our tweet-obsessed society with some measured black comedy; Femke’s murders are darkly amusing yet never too zany for their own good, punctuated as they are by her removal of the victim’s middle finger, serving as her serial killer signature of-sorts.
Purging these toxic forces ultimately fuels Femke’s creativity as she finds the cloud of writer’s block lifting, which combined with her renewed success at managing her life as a single mother couldn’t help but invoke John Waters’ cult classic satire Serial Mom – albeit with decidedly less wink-wink camp.
Though the juxtaposition of Femke’s killing spree with a subplot involving her daughter’s campaign for free speech at school does come off as rather heavy-handed, the two plots do intersect quite beautifully in a third-act montage, in which Femke’s execution of a target is cross-cut with the daughter delivering a stirring speech about the perils of censorship.
The movie’s propulsive driving force above all else, however, is a remarkably controlled lead performance from Katja Herbers, making Femke a believably downtrodden figure who skirts clear of ever quite becoming a cartoon character of a murderer, even as the story becomes increasingly outlandish. Herbers holds an eerily plausible heartbreak behind her striking eyes, ensuring the film maintains firm grasp of its crucial psychological plausibility.
Technicals are meanwhile slick and stylish throughout, largely thanks to Ivo van Aart’s patient direction, and Martijn Cousijn’s deep, rich lensing.
Side-stepping most of the corny pitfalls of the social media horror film, The Columnist pairs its vicious satire with a stonking-good performance from Katja Herbers.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.