THE COLUMNIST (2019)
Directed by Ivo van Aart
Written by Daan Windhorst
Starring Katja Herbers, Genio de Groot, Rein Hofman, Bram van der Kelen, Achraf Koutet, Claire Porro, Harry van Rijthoven, Seno Sever
Find out more about this film here!
A Dutch writer named Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) is tormented by the comments on her online columns and begins seeking these internet harassers out and doling out real world vengeance.
I absolutely hate Twitter. It’s the worst invention ever and though I have an account, I avoid posting on it like the plague. While I understand the impulsive urge to leap online and start spewing out the worst things in these frustrating times, I try to keep as far away as possible from the feuds that often arise online for my own sanity and karma’s sake. I understand that while comments can be over the top, rude, and downright insane, I try to remind myself that they are just pixels on a screen, invisible words from people I don’t know. So even those who may not like a review or script I wrote and may be quite verbose and crass about it, I try to listen to the criticism and ignore the outright meanness. I know that’s not a trait many have, especially creative types, but while I might not like the critical words of others, I appreciate that there is an outlet for those to speak whatever they want and would never want that right taken away. Cue applause.
Those are the thoughts I had while watching THE COLUMNIST, a sort of revenge porn for anyone who has had the guts to put something creative out there; be it words, drawings, or any other means of expression, and had to take criticism that took two seconds to write. Femke Boot’s growing rancor towards her critics and trolls works as a fun catharsis as she dances through her online enemies list, knocking them off, and then taking their middle finger as a morbid souvenir. The film serves as a fun film to watch if you’ve ever wanted to unleash holy vengeance against those wanting to knock you down and has some great performances with Katja Herbers leading the way as the charismatic, though increasingly psychotic lead. She makes you feel for Famke, even though she is doing awful things.
The problem with THE COLUMNIST is that it exists in a made-up world where online harassers all live in the same town, so moseying over to their house is nothing but an hour’s drive tops to dole out the death. All of the trolls of Femke’s column are all within blocks of her place, which makes for a convenient, yet not really realistic story. Femke isn’t that careful with her murders, brandishing a shotgun in broad daylight and really taking no care in who sees her do what she does. The film fails to come to any kind of satisfying conclusion as it sort of glorifies the horror Femke has caused and celebrates her victory over the trolls with no sense that any kind of ramifications are going to befall her sensitivity to criticism. Now, yes, the critics online were saying horrible things and I don’t condone that sort of thing in any way, but this film is built around the “us versus them” debate; with “us” meaning creatives and those who heap accolades at them versus “them” those who criticize, differ in opinion, and write about it. While comparisons to PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN may occur, at least in that film the central character suffers from definite consequences to her actions that may be morally right, but lawfully wrong. I get it that THE COLUMNIST might be seen as a satire, but I don’t think it leans enough into the lampooning to write off any and all real-world fallout.
Any irony comes in the form of Femke’s daughter who is fighting for free speech in her school. There’s a scene where Femke is supposed to show up at her daughter’s rally protesting in favor of free speech, but Femke doesn’t make it because she is killing someone using free speech to talk about Femke online. Yes, this is rich irony indeed, but one that the narrative really doesn’t acknowledge in the end. It makes for a rather off-putting feeling as the credits roll that those who made this film are somewhat tone deaf to the very right of free speech it is supposedly supporting. It seems it’s not free speech, but the right type of speech that is worth fighting and killing for.
THE COLUMNIST is an extremely well-made film with polished acting and a wicked sense of humor. I think there is a lot in this film that will spark interesting conversations for those left who are willing to debate any more. But I feel the overall message it arrives at is off-kilter and while it might feel good to see the protagonist get applause for the horrible things she has done upon the wrong thinkers, I feel these good feelings are fleeting because the role of artist and critic are ever shifting and one day, the roles may be reversed.