If you’ve ever put anything on the internet – writing, art, photos, an opinion of any kind – you’ve probably heard the refrain, ‘never read the comments.” It’s for good reason – the comment section of an article, blog post, or basically all of Reddit is where the trash floats up to the surface, in the form of people’s unfiltered opinions. That’s not a bad thing on its face, as free speech as a general idea isn’t a controversial thing to support, but the worst elements of our online lives have weaponized that idea to encompass hateful, harassing, harmful commentary that very much has real implications on our offline lives.
In Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist, Femke Boot (Kaja Herbers of Westworld and EVIL) is a successful magazine writer with a book deal and a whip-cracking editor who would put Anna Wintour to shame. Her columns are uniformly fluffy, addressing such incendiary subject matter as “Why I Hate Soup” but she yearns for something meatier and the progress on her book is slow as a result. When Boot writes a piece that’s critical of the incomprehensibly racist Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a blackfaced Dutch cultural icon which is tied to Santa Claus, the comments she receives are predictably disgusting and sexist in a way you’d recognize if you ever broke that cardinal rule of never reading that section of a webpage. But when the commenters mount a campaign to get Boot fired or worse by insinuating that she’s a pedophile, and Boot finding no recourse from the police, she reaches her breaking point.
Boot deals with her online tormentors in a way that most of us don’t, but wish we could. Cross-referencing usernames with Twitter, she manages to track down the home addresses of the worst of her online trolls and seeks them out. Of course, most of the online tough talkers are weak-willed, middle-aged white dudes that shrink (in more ways than one) in the face of consequences for their actions. But this time, Boot brings a delicious consequence to these deplorables in the form of a violent bludgeoning or dispatching them in other violent ways. Channelling Alice Lowe in the horror-comedy Prevenge, Herbers portrays a woman who is done with being told to turn off her phone and walk away from the comments and grabs her agency back with both blood-stained hands.
There isn’t much that’s subtle in The Columnist, but for a slasher that’s mostly played for laughs that’s more than okay. There’s an interesting subplot with Femke’s daughter Anna (Claire Porro), who is embroiled in controversy of her own as a writer for her school newspaper, and who has earned the ire of the school admin for some of her remarks about her headmaster. It cleverly shows the other side of the free speech debate while never making apologies for the kind of repulsive comments that Femke receives. The film also doesn’t let Femke off the hook for her real-life hunt for revenge. Even as she becomes intoxicated with her newfound power over the comments section – including a relief from her writer’s block on her book – there are consequences for her actions that cause her to examine her motives.
The Columnist is an examination of the limits of free speech that feels both fresh and timely. As a revenge fantasy, it’s pitch-perfect because its subject matter is completely relatable to anyone that’s ever been online. Herber’s portrayal of a woman taken to her limit before driving right over the edge is exactly what we need right now.
The Columnist is playing as part of Fantasia’s On-Demand Festival Lineup, starting August 20. You can find ticket information at this link