From women scorned to spandex-clad vigilante justice; the avenging fury has had many different faces, but few have proven quite as refreshing and timely as Katja Herbers’ titular columnist, in Ivo van Aart’s hugely twisted and shamelessly cathartic Dutch black comedy. As scathingly funny as it is deeply unsettling, The Columnist is one of cinema’s most fully-formed takes on internet trolling to date, and both its killer lead and powerful central debate on freedom of speech are destined to stick with you for long after its dynamite final frame.
Taking its lead from the casually perverse side of mainstream social media, van Aart’s film follows much derided journalist Femke Boot (Herbers), who finds her writing career somewhat scuppered when her obsession with Twitter trolls takes over her ability to focus. Lost in an online labyrinth of all-too-real ‘reply-guys’, calling her everything from an unfit mother to a straight-up pedophile, Boot starts to take control of the situation the only way she knows how: by tracking them down one by one and enacting violent bloody revenge.
Genre fans will find much to love in its cold, grounded, Alice Lowe-esque sense of humour, and a clever B plot that wades confidently into the ongoing disputes around personal speech, compliments the central mission for vengeance incredibly well. But as cathartic as such a set-up often proves to be, what really gives The Columnist its legs is just how seriously it takes its internal conflict beyond the expected dark comedy.
Boot is a real challenge of a character to begin with; a head-in-the-clouds single mother more focussed on her own career frustrations than her bright, activist daughter. A gifted writer, she suffers in the same way that many of us chained to our keyboards often do, locked in cycle after cycle of endless doubt, letting it consume her and her own image of herself, day by day. The fact that she gets so caught up in the trivialities of what is essentially name calling is no surprise (it’s all too familiar), and her eventual descent into violence ends up feeling massively welcome; in this heightened movie world, it even feels like justice.
But neither van Aart, nor Hebers, are interested in Boot as some sort of squeaky heroine doing what’s ‘right’. Much like Lowe’s homicidal expectant mother in Prevenge, or James Gunn’s religiously possessed Crimson Bolt in his under-seen grindhouse gem Super, this is a lead who in any other film, would be the evil one. The fact that we’re embracing her deadly crusade is just as much a reflection on our own morality, as it is her’s.
She’s the perfect embodiment of the older, maturer professional elite, constantly swiping at the so-called ‘Me’ generation for desperately craving the validation and support of others online, only to quietly fall into the same trap themselves. It’s no accident that the closest the film gets to portraying a mature, straight-headed central character is Boot’s teenage daughter; our social-media-driven world is one that hinges on contradictions, and writer/director van Aart embraces each and every irksome one of them.
The Columnist is a terrifically knotty look at how we live our lives in the shadow of online validation. From its fascinatingly corrupted lead to its unnervingly hilarious tone, van Aart’s film is one that deserves to be debated and talked about in not just genre circles, but the upper echelons of the world stage too. A smart, acid-tongued thriller that couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Columnist was screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest’s Digital Edition 2020.