Ivo van Aarts horror satire The Columnist delights in asking questions about free speech, censorship and validation in an online world. This sharp film is an absolute must-watch.
Troll comments are always going to come for you when you post something online. Everyone has an opinion and depending on how they feel on or against that subject. They will say something that will grate under your skin. These people want a reaction from you, be it a fellow commenter or the author of the piece. I think everyone has gotten it. Yet, the sheer volume of hate and anger directed to female writers is unfathomable, be it publicly in the comments or via DM’s. What happens when someone not only fights against the stream of hate but begins to enact revenge on those responsible? This is where Ivo van Aart takes us in his fantastic The Columnist.
Newspaper columnist and author Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) is suffering from writers’ block, and her mood isn’t improved by the torrent of abuse and death threats she receives daily on social media. When she discovers that her obnoxious, loud neighbour is one of the anonymous people posting vile comments, she snaps and takes matters into her own hands. As she finds herself able to write again, she sets out on a mission – track down the trolls and deliver some swift, polite and deadly vengeance.
Over the past year, trolls have become a growing force within society. The use of specific people to help direct their social media followers to hurl abuse at those who disagree with them has to reach crazy heights. Known people are struggling with the abuse given to them by anonymous people on the internet, they strike the right trigger chords to people, and on occasion, this leads to horrible results.
The Columnist very cleverly uses these instances to show the strain it has on one’s psyche. Of course, Femke takes it too far with her murder spree, but it raises a valid point. Would most of these people say it to a persons face? As Femke confronts more and more of these men who write vile things about her, the majority backtrack aggressively and apologise and think that their words have to impact real because it is via the internet. They do, and this film makes that very clear.
We even have Femke’s boyfriend, and fellow writer Steven (Bram can der Kelen) tell her not to read her writing comments. That is very easy to say, and one must have thick skin to be a writer, but he uses lazy male thinking into saying not to read the messages. He doesn’t know the depth of the hate thrown at Femke and merely brushes it off. In this respect and those non-violent moments, The Columnist feels like an extra part of the excellent Force of Habit that shows a variety of ways in which women are targeted, either from physical or mental abuse. The film is filled with macro and microaggressions against Femke, and as we witness, there is only so much one person can take.
This level of freedom on the internet also pushes the question of free speech, and this is brought up with Femke’s daughter Anna (Claire Porro) as she writes content that is deemed offensive by her principal in the school newspaper. She and her mother have conversations on the matter, and it continues to raise interesting points. Can you write what you want because you can, or do you have to refrain on occasion instead of others feelings? For a film such as this, many questions are being thrown at the audience, which is the strength in Daan Windhorst’s script that the audience can take and soak it in without distraction. This is not merely a concept used to get to interesting deaths. This is a film that has something to say, and it says it very well.
As Femke begins to feed off the hate she is receiving as it gives her all the more reason to go hunting for those against her, it feeds her ability to write, a simple addiction story in truth, but impactful. She kills and gets energy and motivation to write her book, yet when she leaves it for a while, the adrenaline dissipates, and the lull comes back. She needs the thrill, and it becomes less about avenging those who are against her and more about being free to write and create. Yet, for all of the subtext presented here in The Columnist, it never feels overly preachy; it is merely presenting its ideas in a way that offers valuable discussion. The fact it brings it in a violent satire is just a bonus.
Stuck between a rock and a bard place, Femke can’t seem to please anyone. If she goes political, she gets the ire of the conservative readership. When she then tries to go lighter in her tone, the left take aim at her for not being strong enough to use her considerable voice to say something important. Stuck at an impasse and struck with a severe case of writers’ block, her frustrations at everyone, her publicist, other writers, and the general public grow more and more.
Katja Herbers is sensational here as Femke. Her ability to anchor her character in reality, even as she goes down the darkest and unreturnable of rabbit holes, showcase her talents very well. With her character also having that innocent look and demeanour throughout (even when she is brutally murdering people), we see the full range as an actress. Her meeting in a kitchen with the misogynist stands out as she jokes and swaps barbs with him until he says one barb that is too close to home, and her expression shifts instantly. At that moment, you feel as if you are watching a completely different character, and we should as this isn’t the Femke we see at the start with her daughter or in the office. Yes, we see the little twitches of rage building, but nothing like this.
Similarly, how she acts during the killings is telling of where Herbers feels Femke is mentally at that time. For the most part, she is still innocent; the first killing shows this exquisitely as she nonchalantly does what she does, even when she begins her collection of the type of happy men she kills. This performance helps bring a roundedness to the entire picture, and without it, perhaps it would not be as strong without her. Her soft and introverted character, one that can’t get a word in edgeways against her publisher, is a stark difference from where we find her at the end of the film. Her transformation importantly feels natural. This character has finally found her place and purpose in such a cluttered and opinionated world.
The interesting shift in expectations arises here as Femke becomes more and more aggressive in her nature and tone. Whereas the dark and brooding Steven, a horror writer, has the look of someone who would be all in on what she is doing. Instead, he veers more towards being the dutiful boyfriend and family man as he tries to interact with Anna. This change-up allows the audience to feel some extra tragedy to the piece as we see what Femke could have so easily, yet as she gets caught up in her spiral, she begins to lose not only Steven but potentially Anna as well.
The Columnist ends up being a rewarding experience and not providing all of the answers an audience may like. It allows itself to ask the questions and leave them with you. It feels as if The Columnist will slip under the radar for many people, and with a bit of luck, that won’t be the case as this is an excellent film.
‘THE COLUMNIST’ WILL BE RELEASED IN CINEMAS AND ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS IN THE UK AND IRELAND ON 12TH MARCH.
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