Social media is a savage virtual playground that can enable the most spiteful and mean-spirited of cyberbullying. Director Ivo van Aart explores the cut-throat world of internet trolling in a self-assured, confident debut feature, The Columnist, that executes pitch-black comedy and satire successfully.
In a stunning central performance, Katja Herbers plays online columnist and single mother, Femke Boot, a woman on the edge enduring cyber abuse daily for simply sharing her opinion. Disillusioned with the online world, and with the mounting pressure of meeting book deadlines, Femke takes matters into her own hands, meaning the keyboard warriors will soon regret posting their unfounded bile towards her.
Daan Windhorst’s script is sharp and witty, effectively satirizing and making a stark commentary on the nature of online abuse and the psychological impact it creates.
The Columnist tackles the notion of freedom of speech, the indifference of the authorities whose purpose is to protect the public and the cowardice of the trolls who comfortably hide behind a keyboard to spout their venom.
As the police turn a blind eye, Femke feels backed into a corner deciding to the confront the problem head-on, risking her skin every time through taking extreme measures. She certainly makes her victims pay for their abuse in an ironic fashion.
There are plenty of scenarios where suspension of disbelief comes in. Femke isn’t discreet when enacting her revenge, with some of her crimes committed in broad daylight! This adds to the black comedy and farcical nature of the film that invites the audience to bask in the ridiculousness and be entertained while focusing on a realistic, affecting subject matter.
The Columnist is very much a character-driven piece, Femke is an engaging anti-hero who is pushed over the edge due to the toxicity her job brings. Katja Herbers is bolstered by a strong supporting cast, Claire Porro as her long-suffering teenage daughter, Anna, with problems of her own, fighting against censorship in her school, and Bram van der Kelen as love interest and horror author, Steven Dood (Translates: Steven Death).
The trio displays naturalistic chemistry making for a believable dynamic. Their interactions are grounded in the every day, drastically contrasting Femke’s murderous escapades. The balance plays out incredibly well, allowing the audience to remain invested in them as a family and root for Femke, despite her unique unethical, coping methods.
The film is excellently paced, it never feels too slow but does enough to drive the plot towards the end game. It’s professionally shot, containing some striking imagery, namely the final frame and breath-taking scenery during the exterior shots.
The Columnist is a timely, clever dark horror/comedy that’s brutal in all the right places while making a strong statement on the cruelty of social media. If this film teaches us something, it’s a warning to be careful what you type online.
At the time of writing, The Columnist is so far the gem of Frightfest 2020 for its complex female character, compelling narrative, and smart attempt at black humour.