Fantasia Review: The Columnist
Femke Boot seems to have it all. She’s a prominent columnist, working on a book deal, with a spunky daughter and a new boyfriend who could credibly claim to be the world’s most wholesome horror novelist. There’s just one problem: she can’t stop reading internet comments and it’s driving her mad — so mad, in fact, that she’ll do whatever it takes to stop these online personalities from ever posting again. Working from a script by Daan Windhorst, Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist uses black comedy and stylish violence to take the rise of the internet troll to its most extreme — if perhaps illogical — conclusion, asking probing questions about the limits and hypocrisies of free speech while stretching the bounds of credulity.
More than anything, the film relies on the talents of lead actor Katja Herbers to sell the concept. Best known to American audiences for recurring roles on Westworld, The Leftovers, and The Americans, Herber blends charisma and sociopathy with a world-weariness (one that feels inevitable for prominent and talented women with online platforms) that together lets us buy (enough) into the notion that someone like Femke Boot would descend into an internet-fueled bloodlust. The film is working overtime to both be provocative and keep the audience on Boot’s side — slick visuals and the winning lead performance up the entertainment value, even as you sit thinking that these people probably don’t deserve to be murdered for their online behavior, no matter how abhorrent it is.
If anything, The Columnist suffers from having too many ideas — the ambition is admirable, and the film is never less than engaging, but messages become muddled, threads are abandoned without sufficient exploration, and logic is pushed past the breaking point. But despite their numerosity, the ideas are fascinating ones, especially in this particular combination. The B-plot regarding Boot’s daughter’s free speech advocacy at her school dovetails nicely with the horrors being perpetrated outsider the home, and the juxtaposition of horror writers and internet commentators as both expressing taboo thoughts for the good of the general public is clever.
The film isn’t subtle, by any means — much of it walks the fine line of on-the-nose and too on-the-nose (most notably in a late sequence in which a rousing speech about freedom of expression is intercut with Boot literally hunting a man because of his posts) — but in the end it reasonably serves its purpose as both solid entertainment and a reminder that the internet provides a platform for vitriol that is far from harmless.