THE COLUMNIST (2019 - Dutch)

The Columnist.jpg

Studio:      Film Movement
Director:    Ivo van Aart
Writer:      Daan Windhorst
Producer:  Katja Wolffers, Sabine Brian, Ronald Versteeg
Stars:     Katja Herbers, Bram van der Kelen, Claire Porro

Review Score:



Taking revenge against incessant social media harassment leads a controversial writer down a dark path toward becoming a serial killer.



Since Film21 TV¡¯s inception, I¡¯ve had an unwritten policy of never responding to negative comments. Rarely, if ever, have I received a negative message that can be considered constructively critical, respectfully contrasting, or thoughtfully antithetical. It would be one thing if Stephen King were to tell me, ¡°You don¡¯t know anything about horror.¡± Or if Roger Ebert¡¯s ghost said, ¡°You¡¯re terrible at writing film reviews.¡± But when a hotmail-registered handle like ¡®420-Tigger69¡¯ writes, ¡°Your (sic) a pathetic p*ssy who sux donkey balls,¡± what realistic value do those words hold?

Building off of that, what value would there be in replying? In four decades of online browsing, I have yet to see a single troll get called out or dunked on and then that troll responds, ¡°You know what, you¡¯re right¡± before apologizing or changing his/her tune. Trolls always, always, double down on hateful invectives and spitefully dig in deeper. Social media slander has done nothing if not confirm that you cannot convince an assh*le s/he is an assh*le, so don¡¯t waste your time trying.

No matter how thick the skin however, personal insults still leave a mark and it¡¯s hard to not hit back. Journalist Femke Boot knows this digital hole where humility becomes humiliation quite well. Her divisive articles have inspired anonymous detractors to call her the b-word, c-word, and wish for her death in creatively nasty ways more times than can be counted.

Volleys of vitriol have increased for Femke lately. So has pressure from her publisher to deliver a new book. Making matters of writer¡¯s block worse, Femke¡¯s annoying neighbor, a dumpy chump who considers blackface funny, started a construction project whose nagging noises vocalize the Facebook and Twitter blather buzzing in Femke¡¯s head.

Femke tries to not let the comments drag her down. Yet there are limits to how long her composure can keep from crumbling. One day, she gets a bee in her bonnet to do something about the racist reject next door. That something is a simple, yet satisfying, push off the roof that results in the man¡¯s death. Suddenly, Femke¡¯s mental block dissipates and she begins writing with more inspiration than she¡¯s ever had. She also enjoys a new romance with a kindly horror author as well as a rejuvenated relationship with her university student daughter Anna.

Barbs, bile, and pestiferous posts continue. So does the serial killing. Femke has discovered her calling may be more than writing. It may be crusading against online hate speech by taking action to take back her proud sense of self. For anyone who has ever found a day, week, or entire life clouded by virtual bullying, Femke fulfills that commonly shared revenge fantasy by forcing her haranguers to realize words can inspire deadly consequences.

Weirdly, it always amuses me to finally hear actors speak in their native languages for the first time after not previously realizing they were masking accents. I¡¯m so used to hearing/seeing Matthew Rhys on ¡°The Americans¡± and HBO¡¯s ¡°Perry Mason¡± for instance, his natural Welsh voice now sounds fake to me instead of his American accent.

It never occurred to me to consider the etymology of actress Katja Herbers¡¯s name or to look into her career background when she came to my attention via the CBS show ¡°Evil.¡± I just thought she looked a lot like Carrie Fisher circa ¡°A New Hope¡± and had a peculiar way of speaking out of the side of her mouth. Turns out Katja Herbers hails from Netherlands and had been doing a fine job of fooling me into thinking English was her first language.

But I also felt her character on ¡°Evil,¡± Kristen Bouchard, was coldly impersonal and wondered if technical accommodations like faking an accent contributed to Kristen¡¯s alienating vacancy. Upon discovering Herbers starred in a Dutch horror film, I simply had to see her put on a performance that didn¡¯t have any such hindrances.

Unsurprisingly, Herbers¡¯s acting becomes ¡°The Columnist¡¯s¡± centerpiece attraction. It¡¯s incredibly safe to say if you enjoy Herbers on ¡°Evil,¡± or have also wished to see her work expand, ¡°The Columnist¡± serves as a showcase for Herbers to explore her range with scenes full of snark, savagery, sweetness, and unbridled rage. Femke boomerangs between single mother, struggling author, adorable girlfriend, and cold-blooded killer, and Herbers brands each swing with sympathy, wickedness, or furtively playful conniving as required.

I don¡¯t remember Katja Herbers from her role on ¡°Westworld¡± and haven¡¯t seen other series in which she has played prominent parts. But ¡°The Columnist¡± frees her to be more provocative as a woman whose willpower can¡¯t help but be influenced by ego and whose resourceful intelligence is similarly compromised by a perverted sense of how to level the scales of justice.

Despite the problems piling up on Femke¡¯s shoulders, ¡°The Columnist¡± doesn¡¯t do a deep job of making the audience fully feel her frustration. Would Femke¡¯s awful online experiences drive someone to imagine inflicting physical harm in kind to the emotional stress she endures daily? Absolutely. Would those same experiences compel a person to actually commit those crimes? Probably not, but at the very least she¡¯d have a hard time convincing an impartial jury to see it her way.

Part of what ¡°The Columnist¡± proposes is that Femke is so addicted to the attention, she can¡¯t cut the cord and keep her eyes off the internet. The movie grows into a montage of vignettes where Femke confronts the usual suspects of online trolling: a defiant doofus, a set-in-his-ways old grump, an emasculated nobody whose keyboard provides a false sense of power, and an antagonizing teen who swears ¡°it was just a joke.¡± Femke¡¯s war against these ¡°losers with a laptop¡± sees some momentarily scrumptious stings from parodying these stereotypes we¡¯ve all encountered. Meanwhile, a counterplot runs in the background regarding Femke¡¯s daughter¡¯s war with her headmaster over censoring her freedom of speech.

The intentional irony of Femke being almost oblivious to her daughter¡¯s quandry amplifies the satire, though ¡°The Columnist¡± isn¡¯t particularly toothy about what it has to say. The film¡¯s subversive comedy is blacker than straight coffee and frequently as bitter. It¡¯s also a little thin, a little trite, and doesn¡¯t find a particularly sharp bite to viciously puncture the subject it sets out to skewer.

Katja Herbers keeps ¡°The Columnist¡± entertaining, with infrequent assists from Bram van der Kelen as the Clive Barker/Criss Angel composite whose goth persona covers a calm, kundalini-practicing nice guy underneath. The movie moves nimbly too, although in a rare case of less not being more, the brisk runtime diminishes its ability to say something significantly poignant, and leaves the ending scrambling to tidy up everything cleanly. ¡°The Columnist¡± still nails many of the marks it aims at on the ¡°problems with social media and interpersonal communication¡± dartboard. It just hits them at the widest possible margins rather than drilling directly into the bullseye.

NOTE: The film¡¯s Dutch title is ¡°De Kuthoer.¡±

Review Score: 65