The Columnist is one of the North American premiers at Fantasia Fest 2020, and with its timely take on the occupational hazards for female identified creatives on the Internet, particularly relatable to the members of its press pit.
Femke (Katja Herbers) is a columnist for a popular Dutch newspaper. Stepping outside her usual more personal topics, she writes a column questioning the inclusion of the racist caricature of “Black Pete” in traditional holiday celebrations. At the center of a hot button issue (ripped directly from real life Dutch headlines), Femke scores a book deal. The raise in her profile also brings a host of sexist comments, death threats and anonymous abuse. Femke is booked on a news program debate to advocate for tolerance of dissenting opinion. Her debate partner is an edgelord hardcore horror author named Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen), who dresses like a pick up artist and dismisses her points with a wave of black polished nails and barely disguised condescension.
The additional exposure only makes the trolling worse, and Femke can’t stop herself from reading the increasingly vile comments. When it turns out one of the ringleaders is her outwardly polite next door neighbor, something inside of her snaps. While he is doing some home repairs, she pushes him off of the roof. Full of years of suppressed rage, she begins a quest for violent revenge against her online abusers, taking a darkly humorous trophy from each victim.
It’s a slight plot, and those familiar with other cinematic revenge fantasies will know the basic beats by heart, including the inevitable spiral out of control. That leaves The Columnist to shade in both its satire and its moral ambiguities via the secondary characters, and their relationships with Femke. Steven Dood, despite a name that translates to “Steven Death”, is actually a gentle soul. He’s fond of cooking and meditation. Steven even has his mother paint his nails for public appearances, just to have an excuse to spend time with her. He reveals the truth of his sales based outrage stoking to Femke at a mutual colleague’s book launch. Femke confides she “doesn’t really care about anything”. Having revealed the reality behind their public personas to each other, the pair begins a romantic relationship.
Finding the emotional release of the murders inspiring and enthralled by her new partner, Femke is a bit distant and distracted with her teenage daughter Anna (Claire Porro). Anna has her own reasons to be angry, including being dismissed from the school newspaper for a muckraking piece on a proposed merger. As her mother is executing online trolls, Anna mounts a clever campaign of malicious compliance against the headmaster for her dismissal. Anna also plans a free speech rally at school, with Femke as the keynote speaker.
The Columnist’s universe feels very accurate to the real world mechanisms of cultural marketing and criticism in the online era, as does the particular brand of abuse Femke faces. Be it social justice or a food column on the delicious simple pleasure of a soft boiled egg, she is both too much and never enough for her editors, readers, and the angry Internet warrior mob.
That said, The Columnist is a bit too devoted to covering both sides of its central points, and the escalation of Femke’s rage only really reaches its boiling point in the last 10 minutes of the film. Katja Herbers does a fine job with what the script gives her to work with, but that really isn’t all that much. For a film with a scant 84 minute runtime, a few more minutes spent on Femke’s spiral into vigilantism would have gone a long way, rather than the time spent with the Steven Dood character acting as the reasonable counterpoint to her emotions.
Claire Porro steals her relatively few scenes as the angsty Anna, and it seems odd in the context of a revenge fantasy that hers is the character allowed the most time to express her anger. Femke, even when she is murdering the knuckle-dragging archetypes that torment her, is still given the futile emotional labor of trying to explain to them rationally why their actions hurt before bludgeoning them to death with a frying pan.
The Columnist‘s base ideas and structures are sound, and its eye for the ecosystem of online discourse is sharp. That said, it needed to push further over the top on both the horror and the comedy fronts, as the satire is more of a poke than an eviscerating skewer. In a female fronted film focused on revenge fantasies and feminine rage, its seems a disservice to its plot and its characters to stay so reserved and polite.
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director(s): Ivo van Aart