The Columnist (Cert 15)

Digital/VOD (Distributor: Vertigo Releasing) Running Time: 85 minutes approx.

Release Date – March 12th

“Why couldn’t you be nice?”

For all the wonderful things and changes the internet has brought the world it also has created a culture that is toxic and nasty in bullying people for having different opinions or for being the wrong colour, gender, religion, etc. Instant feedback is one thing; some people abuse this privilege and take it too far, with horrific repercussions. 

Newspaper columnist and author Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) seems to draw the ire of trolls on the internet. Be it Twitter, Facebook or newspaper website comments section, mean-spirited, vulgar, personal insults, and death threats are regular fixtures, which the police refuse to take seriously. Femke tries to ignore them but they get worse which brings her down.

Recognising one Twitter troll as her next-door neighbour Arjen Tol (Rein Hofman), Femke takes revenge by destroying his newly built fence. When the abusive posts continue, she takes further action by pushing Arjen off his roof to his death, and cutting off his middle finger as a trophy. Feeling empowered, Femke starts hunting down other trolls and kills them too, creating a public stir from these unsolved murders.

I suppose I should count myself lucky that my film reviews or Twitter posts don’t incur the same level of abuse as Femke’s do; I’ve had my fair share of insults but nothing as serious as death threats. Online bullying has become a prevalent issue of the past few years with celebrities and regular folk alike either leaving social media or worse, taking their own lives as a result of the harmful rhetoric aimed at them.

The Columnist is a black comedy from Dutch director Ivo van Aart that hypothesises an extreme conclusion when somebody has enough of being mindlessly and unjustly insulted for their opinions. Femke’s revenge is no doubt the ultimate wish-fulfilment for many writers or victims of cyber bullying, and the script by Daan Windhorst does appear to run with this as its core tenet. Fortunately, there is also a scathing subtext regarding freedom of speech, manifest in a subplot featuring Femke’s teenage daughter Anna (Claire Porro).

Currently at high school, Anna is fired from the school newspaper for an article she wrote containing profane langue and an anti-royalist stance. Deciding her freedom of speech has been denied, Anna embarks on a campaign to protest this with Femke’s blessing and support. The irony, of course, is as Femke spurs on her daughter, she is out silencing those who are basically exercising their right to free speech.

We will not see hurtful abuse and slander as free speech – the victims certainly won’t – more an abuse of this, but as Femke reasons in a speech she wrote for Anna, whilst people are allowed their opinion and disagree with her, they are not allowed to silence her. It work both ways, but the films is also, and more importantly, asking the question when is being so openly hostile and offensive going to stop being the norm.

Predictably, when Femke does confront her trolls, they are either full of themselves and call her out to her face or cower easily, offering the limp “it was just a joke” sophistry. Neither earns clemency from Femke, just an angry but heartfelt reminder that they words are more harmful than they think, followed by a swift death and separation from their middle finger.

Just in case it seems Femke is getting away with this too easily, there is a clever swerve when Anna fids the bloody weapons in the garage and suspects they belong to Femke’s horror author boyfriend Steven Death (Bram van der Kelen) – real name Erik Flinterman, under which he write children’s books. Because of the graphic nature of his writing and his gothic appearance, Steven is the obvious suspect, and Anna sets out to prove it.

But it is at the end of the film where the satire comes full circle regarding women in the arts being immune to abuse and criticism, which I won’t spoil but it makes for a great closing shot. This is in part the blow off a recurring theme revolving around Femke’s publisher, who wants to sue the negative tweets to help push the new book Femke is struggling to write. It makes more sense in context, trust me.

Like a lot of satire, what seems ludicrous is in fact scarily real. For instance, Femke is lambasted by right-wingers for speaking against a black face tradition to celebrate a Dutch legend called Black Pete; later she is threatened with rape for writing about soft-boiled eggs. It might seem daft to have such a reaction to something so innocuous but reality unfortunately corroborates this as rooted in fact.

Some might find this a little didactic whenever Femke goes on a rant before slaying her tormentors but the message is one that needs to be said, the writing of these speeches is impassioned, not overwrought or melodramatic so the words stick and their meaning pierce the conscience. That said, I’m sure someone has already complained online about it and sent death threats to the producers for telling people how to behave.

Despite the provocative subject, van Aart delivers a polished piece of work instead of a grimy, low-key arthouse piece, making it so easy to slip into Femke’s world and for the violence to shock when it occurs. Nothing is too graphic, just enough to be effective. Undeniably effective is Katja Herbers’ riveting performance as Femke. A physically perfect choice for her innocent, pixie-like appearance, there is no way she could become an unhinged killer but she convinces us and had our sympathy at the same time.

Is it a shame a film like The Columnist had to be made? Possibly, but it’s such a wickedly exhilarating, savagely on point, trenchant retort against mindless social media abuse, we should be glad someone did decide to fight back, using their brains to do so. Just please don’t hate me for having that opinion.

Rating – *** ½  

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