Ever since the inceptions of (The) Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even YouTube, the internet has been on a rapid ascent to becoming a much more hostile and toxic environment.
Whether posting a status on Facebook, Tweeting a Tweet on Twitter or confidently posting a photo of oneself on Instagram, everybody is ultimately out to seek attention. Whilst most seek positive attention; a little pick-me-up affirmation from friends and family, others strangely enough seek negative attention. Those very same people intentionally aim to criticise, berate and bully other people on the multitude of social media platforms for no other reasons than it is entertaining to them and makes them feel better about themselves. We know these complete and utter cretins better as “internet trolls”. Typically, dingleberries who find their assurance through the safety of a computer or smartphone screen and keyboard. A yellow-bellied wimp who wouldn’t think twice about talking all the guff they do online to strangers to anybody’s face in reality.
In a feature-length debut from Dutch filmmaker Ivo van Aart, we see what might happen if a victim of cyberbullying got pushed too far.
Starring HBO’s Westworld front runner Katja Herbers in another first-class performance, The Columnist focuses on a depressed newspaper journalist and author who is bombarded with daily anonymous hostile messages and death threats on social media. Suffering from writer’s block, Femke Boot takes matters into her own hands and tracks down her online haters, resulting in a murderous rampage that finds herself being able to write once more.
At face value, The Columnist is a laugh-out-loud, tongue in cheek satirical thriller film. Looking much deeper between the lines, Ivo van Aart‘s film is multi-layered and plentiful in rich subtexts and profound social commentary throughout its runtime.
Famke’s violent crusade begins with her addiction to not read the comments. Unable to not be offended by the barrage of negative comments made about her, Famke becomes addicted to being sucked into the cesspool of toxicity that is Twitter and Facebook. She is unable to simply put down her phone and go about her business. The deliberately hurtful comments consume her.
When she does go about her mundane day-to-day life, any notification Famke receives prompts her to immediately look at her phone. In one scene in a supermarket, receiving an alert, Famke looks at her phone which has two unopened text messages and one Twitter notification. She chooses to open the Tweet knowing full well she is about to see something she does not want to see. A powerful metaphor how we yearn for constant connectivity – today, seemingly on a much more superficial, impersonal and sometimes offensive level.
The online gunfire Famke experiences is typical of what we see in real life on the plethora of social media platforms. “Dumb leftist bitch”. “Leftist snowflake”. The standard, unimaginative comments you see where the precipitator usually has the default egg profile picture on Twitter. Without generalising, the same people who have a Union Jack on their Facebook profile picture and have “All Lives Matter” typed on their bio. Knuckleheads who insult anybody for having a different opinion to their own and dismissively label them as “politically correct”. All whilst usually holding their “correct”, racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic absurdist beliefs. No centralists ever throw out the terms “leftie” or “alt-right conservative”.
Back at the supermarket, Famke discovers that one of her online bullies happens to be her next-door neighbour. Consumed by rage, Famke mistakenly drops a jar of pasta sauce causing it to shatter and begins to furiously stare at intently. The bolognese-soiled supermarket floor signifies her desire to clap back at her silencers and her thirst for blood.
At home, Famke is established as a single mother. Her teenage daughter is a ruthless, radical narcissist, who wishes to follow in her mother’s steps. Anna (Claire Porro) is a bright young girl with a hunger for knowledge. Their relationship is wobbly but not completely broken. Famke acknowledges her daughter’s quest for greatness and Anna acknowledges the intellectual strength of her wordsmith mother. There’s a few scenes in the first leg of the film that showcase the very real, almost robotic-like emotionless conversations mother and daughter sometimes share. They serve as a reminder of how self-absorbed and demanding we can be to our most cherished ones without realising it. In the third act, there’s one instance where Famke voluntarily rejects a phone call from Anna whilst on a pursuit to get her fix. A disheartening double entendre of the silenced become the silencer.
After a disliking to a fence being built between the two opposing gardens, Famke’s first victim, her cyberbullying next-door neighbour – who funnily enough looks like Lars von Trier’s doppelgänger, sparks a sought-after level of credence in her creative writing with his chucklesome demise. The subtle symbolism of tearing down walls instead of building new ones is strapping. “Love thy neighbour” is well and truly out of the window!
Now back in her productive stride, Famke attends the book launch of novelist adversary Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen). After a playful square off of who’s the bigger cynic, the two hastily hop into the sack together. Thus forth a relationship alights and it’s truly wholesome entertainment. For a brief instance, the audience can single out heinous killing from moments just prior. That being said, when the secretive psychotic serial killing restarts, you can’t help but love Famke’s almost polite approach to vigilantism. Her perverse behaviour should be abhorrent but instead is gratifying. As Famke and Steven’s relationship continues to blossom, we quickly identify that the outwardly edgy horror novelist is the films’ centralist. As her fellow creative writer and peer, Steven encourages his lover to not read the comments. He is desperately seeking peace, love and unity.
With each obsessive escapade, the lines begin to blur with Famke’s addiction to slaughtering those who oppose her. Her desperation becomes as irrational as the online hate crimes her victims commit. To me, this is where the most weighty subtext shines through to deliver the biggest message. If you go looking for trouble, you will find it. Don’t become a part of the problem. Be smart enough to know when not actively look for something you know will trigger and upset you. Don’t clap back. There’s nothing absolutely nothing to gain from it that will add any real depth or value to your life outside of that virtual reality. Normalise logging off, deactivating accounts, deleting apps and putting down your phone or tablet.
While there is one major plot hole (of which I shan’t spoil) that is head-scratchingly frustrating to see in connection to Famke’s narrative arc in the finale, as well as a few loose ends that hurriedly aren’t tied up, The Columnist is one of the most venomously witty and amusing films you will see in 2021! So whip-smart that I can regrettably see Ivo van Aart‘s knockout being Americanised in the next few years for audiences with a limited culture palate.
Thriller, World Cinema | Netherlands, 2019 | 18 | Digital HD | 12th March 2021 (UK) | Vertigo Releasing | Dir.Ivo van Aart | Genio de Groot, Katja Herbers, Rein Hofman, Bram van der Kelen