THE COLUMNIST (2019)
A columnist and author is flooded with anonymous nasty messages and death threats on social media, so decides to take revenge.
Twitter is a dark, thankless place for writers. It will suck the life out of you, if you let it. Unfortunately, its power as a platform is unavoidable, as it’s still one of the best places online to share your work and connect with others. But longtime users of social media have come to understand you pay a price when you use these apps, as honestly expressing yourself online can provoke negative reactions from total strangers, and there isn’t much you can do about it.
The Columnist / De Kuthoer examines this unpleasant side of the internet through its protagonist, columnist and author Femke Boot (Katja Herbers). Despite usually writing inoffensive columns about her life as a working mother, Femke finds herself on the end of online vitriol after publishing an anti-racist piece. Soon she’s unable to look away from the constant stream of abuse sent her way and begins to suffer from writer’s block. And after learning that her neighbour is one of her online tormenters, she embarks on a killing spree of internet trolls and gains inspiration for her new book along the way.
In spite of having such rich subject matter to draw inspiration from, The Columnist is a disappointedly superficial exploration of social media and how it affects its users. It straddles the line between realistic thriller and revenge fantasy without much success at either. There’s a sense that director Ivo van Aart takes the premise too seriously to be able to have fun with the story’s more ridiculous elements, rendering any moments of comedy or slapstick violence a little dull. If only he’d leaned into the absurdity of its premise more, it might have produced a far more entertaining and campy black comedy in the vein of John Waters’ Serial Mom (1994).
On the other hand, it doesn’t have enough footing to be a grounded, serious exploration of social media abuse and its consequences. Logic goes out the window once Femke gets into her killing spree: somehow she becomes a master of doxxing overnight as she manages to track down home addresses in the space of an evening. There ‘s no concern for leaving DNA everywhere or concealing the murder weapons either. She even keeps dismembered fingers in the freezer like a Dutch Patrick Bateman!
One has to wonder if Ivo van Aart even understood this subject matter. For someone who uses the app constantly, Femke doesn’t seem to know you can filter Twitter notifications. She also makes the rookie mistake of reading the comments below her column; something her boyfriend has to point out is a terrible idea. It’s hard to believe an experienced columnist wouldn’t have learned by now to avoid such things, especially if she has such thin skin.
The severity of online abuse is also strangely underplayed by supporting characters; an attitude which might have made more sense five years ago but not in the age where hate groups and conspiracy theorists have made Twitter their playground. For example, the police downplay Femke’s report of her online abuse when, in fact, issuing online death threats is a serious offence and certainly enough to get someone arrested. Perhaps the situation’s different in the Netherlands, but nowadays it’s widely understood that social media can have damaging effects on someone’s mental health.
That’s not to say this film is without merit or ideas. It does a good job in communicating how average and unassuming internet trolls can often be. Femke’s neighbour, for example, is a noisy man who joins in with the derogatory abuse online and thinks the racist Dutch tradition of Black Pete is a-okay. However, he’s polite and pleasant to her in person, even bringing her a meal at one point in apology for his loud building work. Another harasser turns out to be an average teenage boy, the opposite of his aggressive alter-ego on Twitter. Those behind frightening online abuse are often appear normal in real life, and it works in the film’s favour that all of Femke’s victims are so unremarkable.
It’s also entirely relatable, if not foolish, that our protagonist can’t bring herself to log off. We’ve all sworn to delete certain apps but keep scrolling anyway. Part of what makes Twitter so toxic is its addictive nature and there’s something very human about Femke’s inability to step away from social media.
Herbers does have a ferocity behind her puppy-dog timidity that makes Femke’s unhinged behaviour all the more convincing. It’s a shame she isn’t more dynamic in her performance, but the actress just isn’t deranged enough to keep the story interesting. In fact, none of the performances are particularly engrossing. Claire Porro and Bram van Der Kelen are serviceable as daughter Anna and Femke’s rival-turned-boyfriend Steven Dood, but their characters aren’t particularly engaging.
It doesn’t help that their storylines are painfully obvious fodder for Femke’s rampage. Anna’s on a warpath to defend freedom of speech at her school whilst Steven uses a cynical TV persona in order to draw in more readers. Clearly the film thinks that concepts such as ‘free speech is important but it also has consequences’ and ‘we behave differently in public spaces’ are too complex for the audience and really needed hammering home.
The Columnist may think its comparable to Black Mirror, but it has more in common with The Hunt (2020)—no, not Thomas Vinterberg’s exceptional drama about the perils of modern-day witch-hunting, but the inconsequential satirical thriller released last year. Actually, calling The Hunt a satire is like calling Piers Morgan a nice, reasonable guy. Its attempt to lampoon the deep political divide in America involved a group of overly-sensitive liberals hunting down right-wingers, a supposed comment on political correctness run amok. However, for a film that prided itself on being inflammatory and clever, it had about as much teeth as a newborn. The Columnist suffers from the same problem: it thinks it’s smarter than it actually is.
It also seems simplistic to have every online abuser be men. While it’s true that women in the public eye face misogynistic backlash, this behaviour isn’t exclusive to men. In the past few years alone, there’s been a vicious rise in harassment from radical feminists in the UK, and public figures such as JK Rowling have been blamed for inciting hate speech on Twitter. Bearing that in mind, it would’ve been an interesting development to have at least one woman behind the screen.
The Columnist was originally broadcast on Dutch channel NPO 3 and, visually, it does feels like a TV movie without much flair. But it’s framed adequately and there’s an intriguing use of imagery in contrasting Femke with spiders, showing her transition from victim to predator. The most memorable sequence comes when Femke enters her book launch in a blood-splattered white suit, a bold move misinterpreted as an artistic statement rather than a confession of murderous deeds. However, the cinematography is much like the rest of the film: flat and humdrum without much depth.
Ultimately, The Columnist is a black comedy that’s neither dark nor comedic enough, with satire as blunt as the objects Femke uses to bludgeon her attackers. It doesn’t add anything new to the conversation about the dangers of social media or those who hide behind it. Herbers does a decent job as the film’s protagonist but director Ivo van Aart fails to ramp up the ludicrous nature of the character or story, and overall its a lacklustre experience. Viewers will be better off revisiting Black Mirror or Ingrid Goes West (2017) for cutting social media critiques. Most tragically, any journalist hoping to see some wish-fulfilment onscreen will be sorely disappointed.
NETHERLANDS | 2019 | 86 MINUTES | COLOUR | DUTCH
director: Ivo van Aart.
writer: Daan Windhorst.
starring: Genio de Groot, Katja Herbers, Rein Hofman, Bram van der Kelen, Achraf Koutet, Claire Porro, Harry van Rijthoven & Seno Sever.