Directed by Ivo Van Art
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
When a likable protagonist goes horribly, horribly wrong and the movie turns out to be very, very, right. The Dutch film, The Columnist, is an adult study of cyberbullying and the drastic measures that a journalist will go through to exact a pound of flesh from her trolls. The mix of emotions watching a character you like descend so far is palpable.
Teenagers aren’t the only ones who suffer from bullying. If you are a public figure, particularly in the press, you are going to get some flak. If you are an editorial journalist, look out! Katja Herbers plays Femke Boot, a successful columnist with left-leaning tendencies who rails against the polarized cultural environment that leads to internet trolling. She implores people to just be nice to each other. As a result, she is ruthlessly mocked and threatened online.
Adding to her ongoing feud issues is that she is trying to complete a book, and her publisher is pushing her to be more provocative, and to embrace the hatred as that just drums up more publicity, and therefore… sales. But anyone who has been the subject of trolling will know, that it is HARD to ignore the insults. It is HARD to turn your shoulder and take the hit. The opposition senses weakness and piles on, with anonymous posters stacking on anonymous agitators amounting to a mountain of vitriol and obnoxious behavior.
Femke actually falls in love with Steven Dood as played by Bram Van der Kelen (a wonderful nom de plume: Dood=Death in Dutch), a strikingly hirsute man with whom she appeared at the beginning of the film on opposite sides of the free speech argument. It turns out, he’s not so bad, but he uses the outward persona as a provocateur to drum up the sales of his horror novels. Femke’s daughter, Anna (Claire Porro) is an aspiring high-school activist who has taken up free speech as her cause celebre.
It is within that context that Femke wrestles with her trolls. Do they have the right to be so cruel? Should they be given a free pass? Steven implores Femke to stay off of Twitter. Avoid social media. It’s poisonous. But she just can’t help it. And she stews in the poisonous commentary of her internet opponents.
And then one day she catches a surprising lead. One of her antagonists just so happens to be her next-door neighbor, Arjen (Rein Hofman). He’s an otherwise very nice man, generous enough to bring a leftover roast to her, and ready with a smile. But online he’s the worst. His obscene barbs and pithy threats have struck a chord with Femke, and when she spots an opportunity to exact some revenge, an “accident” (read: murder) occurs, and then she collects one of his fingers as a trophy.
As it turns out, it seems like it isn’t that hard to find out who her trolls are. And, what’s more, it seems like murderous revenge comes easily for her. She is the most unlikely serial killer. Slight and pixie-ish, she looks like no threat to anyone. Her delicate countenance hides a savage, stabbing willpower and ferocity, and she hides it well.
But as the bodies stack up, questions arise as to whether she has truly found her online opposition, or if she is making hasty assumptions. And the audience is positioned to have to determine if the punishment meets the crime.
Herbers is wonderful as the central lead. She is immediately likable, which makes it all the harder as she embarks on a revenge tour as what we are to make of her nocturnal exploits. Henry, portrait of a serial killer she isn’t… but she’s not that far off either. She is originally the aggrieved victim, but once her sinister motivation kicks in, and apparently exhibits very little moral code, you find that she’s STILL likable!
I have been fortunate not to have been called out, or to have been trolled for my editorial commentary on films. Perhaps that’s because the horror fans are just absolutely wonderful people. Honestly, you are! (knock on wood) But every now and again, I get the stray message that I’m full of shit. Or that I’m not being sensitive enough in regards to a certain group of interests. To each their own, right?
I admit that I have to resist the urge to go into written warfare with someone who disagrees with me. And, it’s part of the job. It helps that I don’t write politically and that the worst-case scenario is that someone strongly disagrees with my opinion. Usually, it occurs, if I poorly rate a movie somebody likes. I very rarely get blowback from liking a movie that somebody else likes. And, since I tend to avoid movies that I think I will end up not liking, I’m not often in a vulnerable position.
Femke is burdened with delving into political thoughts. And in this day and age, there is no middle ground. I shudder at the prospects of what that would feel like. The Columnist does play a bit like a dark comedy, that marches to a melancholy conclusion. It’s well performed and has a clear point of view. You find yourself at the cusp of cheering for her as she exacts her revenge, and then you shrink back a little as you recognize that you are being pulled along in her wake.
The Columnist is not rated, but it would certainly earn an R rating for multiple scenes of violent and modestly gory murders, some sexuality, and lots of profanity. It is available streaming for free on Amazon Prime.
Here’s the trailer. Caution… it’s a little spoiler heavy.