Ivo Van Aart’s uneven black comedy/thriller about a vengeful writer is ultimately more style than substance.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival
Don’t read the comments. Never read the comments. If you plan to spend more than a day on the internet, particularly social media, avoid at all costs anything that would allow you to see the awful things other people think and say. Some of it is trolling, just jokes, it’s hard to tell either way, but it’s what we tell ourselves so it doesn’t get to us. Ivo Van Aart’s The Columnist depicts what happens when someone lets it get to her a little too much.
Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) is a writer for a Guardian-like website, mostly publishing softball columns on the perfect hardboiled eggs or why she doesn’t like soup. Nevertheless, Femke is the target of vulgar online harassment and threats, largely for the crime of being a woman who has an opinion. While everyone in her real life suggests that she just ignore it, Femke seems to have an almost masochistic compulsion to read the vulgar things anonymous commenters say about her, often at the cost of shutting out the world around her.
After discovering that a neighbor is one of her trolls, Femke sets about anonymously harassing him in return, quickly escalating it to violence when she pushes him off a roof. Rather than be remorseful, or even the slightest bit disturbed by what she’s done, committing murder is just the thing Femke needs to put the spark back in her life. She breaks through a particularly pesky case of writer’s block, and falls into a relationship with Steven (Bram van der Kelen), a fellow writer. Nevertheless, she still can’t stop herself from reading the comments, or from seeking out the faces behind the usernames and exacting revenge on them.
No one can argue that The Columnist, written by Daan Windhorst, isn’t timely. Social media is a veritable Dodge City, particularly for women. Safely hidden behind a computer screen, men merrily make rape and death threats, with almost no consequences. If you write for a living, the Catch-22 is that you have no choice but to put up with trolls, because it’s no longer possible to maintain a successful career without some kind of social media presence. The question that continues to go unanswered is how can a person reasonably be expected to put up with before snapping and expecting their trolls to answer for their own words?
No one can argue that The Columnist, written by Daan Windhorst, isn’t timely.
Alas, The Columnist is only interested in a very surface approach to the subject. Though Herbers is fine in the role, Femke isn’t entirely believable as a character. She goes from 0 to murder in barely twenty minutes, and it feels forced and clumsy, as if she was merely looking for an excuse to start killing people rather than driven to it. There’s no indication that Femke feels guilt or sorrow for what she does, or that she’s even particularly worried about getting caught, as illustrated by the fact that she keeps bloody weapons and body parts in her house where they could be easily found. The Columnist presumably is a cautionary tale in the vein of “he who fights monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” but for all the time the film spends on developing Femke as a character, she might as well be a monster from the very beginning.
That being said, it is extremely satisfying to see Femke stab, beat, strangle, shoot and electrocute her way through one troll after another. One could say that her behavior is rather extreme, but so is posting that someone should be “impaled c*nt-first” because of some light culture article they wrote for a website no one is under any obligation to read. Sure, one wishes that someone would slap the phone out of Femke’s hands, but don’t we all have that desire to look at various car crashes on the internet? Online trolling may be just a part of life, and while The Columnist doesn’t really ask why women must simply tolerate it, it does enough to make you wonder.