Written by Becky Darke – exclusive reporter for FrightFest 2020
Ivo van Aart directs the superb Katja Herbers (best known for her TV work in Westworld, 2016-present and The Leftovers, 2014-2017) in this violent reaction to online trolls and how (possibly) not to handle them.
Herbers plays Femke Boot, the titular columnist whose work prompts varying levels of online attack, mainly from men using the classic hiding-behind-their-keyboards approach. She deftly switches between reinvigorated family woman and successful columnist, to compulsive online masochist and avenging angel.
Femke becomes almost the Dexter Morgan of online bullied women, investigating the trolls’ backgrounds and using their disgusting abuse and threats, plus things like implied racist tendencies, to judge them and find them wanting. Her compulsion to read below the line leads her to exact furious revenge on her detractors, and it’s refreshing to see the film kick off the vengeful carnage early on. She finds herself energised by the release of her violence; her relationship improves with her teenage daughter (Claire Porro) and a professional rivalry develops into a serious romantic relationship with Bram van der Kelen’s writer Steven Dood.
The humour in the script, skillfully handled by the cast, turns The Columnist into an astute black comedy. Femke’s reactions and viciousness is extreme, right down to the trophies she takes from her victims. There’s also a dark laugh to be had as writer Daan Windhorst paints the trolls as vaguely clueless; once confronted, the men cower and retract. This is very much a film about external projections and how they differ from the selves we choose to hide from others.
In recent years, cinema has developed dynamic ways of weaving digital communication into onscreen storytelling, and The Columnist uses a satisfying range of techniques to keep the audience up to date with Femke’s experience of the online venom.
As can happen with self-sabotagers, Femke’s impulse to keep reading the toxic comments means the catharsis of her revenge becomes less satisfying as you lose sympathy for her cause, but her addiction does make for an extremely compelling story.
The Columnist isn’t so much a story of purgative revenge and more a portrait of how far the impact of online hatred can go, and by the final spiralling act, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
Verdict: 4 out of 5