FrightFest 2020: The Columnist review

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A horror film with something to say about internet troll culture, here’s our review of The Columnist, from FrightFest 2020.

I don’t have a great idea of what’s been going on in the world of professional wrestling for the last 25 years or so. Nonetheless, what I saw when I did watch it as a kid made enough of an impression to prepare me for a life spent writing articles on the internet. As anyone who has ever written anything with a comments section will tell you, there are few fantasies more satisfying than imagining yourself greased up, stripped down to a neon Speedo and sprinting towards a wrestling ring full of abusive, anonymous internet trolls with a steel chair raised above your head, ready to womp every single one of them.

The Columnist, a Dutch black comedy horror from writer Daan Windhorst and director Ivo van Aart, plays out a similar, albeit considerably darker and less greasy, scenario.

Newspaper columnist Famke Boot, played by the brilliant Katja Herbers, is the target of internet trolls. She knows she should look away, but she can’t. She’s compelled. On Twitter, on Facebook, in letters written to the paper, she is the subject of horrific abuse and baseless accusations. It’s just… impolite. But, it turns out, it’s not so hard to track some of these people down (especially those a little closer to home). And so Famke does, touching base with those behind some of the vilest abuse directed at her and responding in a way that is, well, even more impolite. And very violent.

The Columnist is at once a lampooning of internet troll culture and a comedy of manners. It’s a film that trades in amusing and dark truths about human beings. For all of Famke’s just anger and disgust at the abuse she receives, one of the strangest and most authentic feeling elements is that her response is driven at least equally in response to her outrage at the breaking of social protocols. It’s not that she feels unsafe, it’s that people are being rude that Famke seems to find so galling.

There’s a very amusing and honest ridiculousness at the heart of the films central conceit, too. Because, while murdering people for sending you abuse over the internet is obviously a massive overreaction, sending someone abuse over the internet for writing something you don’t agree with is, too. Famke is a lifestyle columnist, writing about how to boil an egg and not being fond of soup, and in response receives threats of sexual violence and accusations of being a sex offender. Ridiculous and uncomfortable though it is, it does start to look like an escalation to scale.

The Columnist is a confident work. It’s well paced and well-acted, with characters filling thematic rolls yet fitting perfectly with the cinematic reality of the film. No one feels thinly drawn or like a narrative device.

There’s also some fantastic work done to visually represent way Famke consumes abuse. Tweets pop up in the supermarket as she gazes at her phone while walking the aisles. A huge part of this film is characters reading and writing, which are hardly visually engaging activities to portray on the screen. Yet, at no point does the film lag nor fall into a visual lull. It is an amusing film, too; van Aart and Windhorst are able to draw a good amount of amusement from their material. Everything feels authentic and honest, which is why so much of it is funny.

Where it struggles, perhaps, is in doing anything interesting or memorable enough to lodge the film in your brain. It’s certainly an enjoyable watch, but this writer found that the film made a decent first impression but that the impact soon faded. Everything you would expect to be addressed or to feature in this film is there, but there’s not a lot more. It’s missing some insight, something we haven’t noticed before, some strand to the discourse that hasn’t already been chewed over ad nauseum.

The Columnist, then, is worth a watch. A very enjoyable and relevant black comedy that shows guts and spills blood, if one that lacks surprises.

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