Ever thought about hitting a Twitter troll in the head with a frying pan and then cutting one of his typing fingers off? Well, The Columnist executes just that, letting the audience live that fantasy through Femke Boot (Katja Herbers), an author, columnist, and single mother who’s been getting hate messages and death threats over a column she wrote. In director Ivo van Aart’s third feature written by Daan Windhorst characters ask questions like, “Why can’t we just have different opinions and be nice about it?” and say that words are just words, the internet isn’t real, and it’s as simple as, her boyfriend (Bram van der Kelen) says, never reading the comments. But like Femke, most of us can’t help reading the comments. The Dutch film emphasizes – through Femke’s daughter Anna’s (Claire Porro) self-assertiveness at school – the importance of free speech and how people in certain countries are killed for their words which oppose the larger political opinion. When it seems like Femke’s right-wing critics want to silence her, she decides to turn the tables. She wants to shut her critics up, and permanently.
The Columnist is entertaining and sizzles with violence and dark comedy as Femke gets back at the trolls who harass her daily online. It feels cathartic as Femke takes revenge in various killer ways that we would never act out ourselves. We’ve all been in the crosshairs of a troll who launches their vitriol over politics or even just a “bad” take on a movie they deem a “masterpiece”. What causes these same kinds of wackos to attack the titular columnist is never really explained fully, but luckily, you’re reading this so I can brief you: It’s a piece on why the Netherlands should say goodbye to Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete). The character, part of the annual Feast of St. Nicholas, has been subject to controversy as those who portray him do so in blackface. It’s racist, and it’s assumed that Femke calls that part of their culture out. The disgusting comments she receives are shown on screen throughout the film as she can’t help but scroll obsessively through them. The police won’t do anything, Twitter won’t either because, as we know, their moderation sucks, and she’s made to feel it’s her fault because she didn’t stick to her “women’s columns”. But even when she goes back to that, writing a simple column about the gift that is a soft-boiled egg, she’s still met with hate. The hypocrisy of journalism and what women and men are deemed fit to write about is ever-present.
With the excellent use of camera focus, Femke’s anger is emphasized through close-ups on a sharp object she’s looking at or on her clenched fist. Herbers carries the mannerisms of someone with intense paranoia; the anxious glances around over your shoulder because you feel you’re being stared at or thinking that everyone is talking about you. These are relatable feelings especially for those who are very much “online” – the question, “Is Twitter a curse or a blessing?” coming up frequently. Having an online presence comes with feelings of paranoia over everyone hating you, judging you, and thinking every subtweet is about you. Femke also shows fear that she could be attacked or her home broken into. So when she realizes that one of her tormentors is her neighbor (Rein Hofman) – who is seen in Black Pete blackface in the film – she loses it. The tension heightens, and her murder spree begins. As she takes the garden sheers to her enemies, you find yourself chuckling over it all. Becoming unhinged and murdering her enemies with a smile on her face, you feel like you’re in a high with her. It’s especially satisfying when she confronts the trolls and you see them cower in discomfort as she reads their words back to them. Trolls think they’re invincible behind their little screen, total strangers not afraid to wish other people dead or say things they never would in real life. We see that cowardice jump out, their words hurting them back in a very unrealistic but bold way.
For those who get a kick out of some good, darkly comedic violence, The Columnist is a blast and one of the year’s biggest surprises. It’s incredibly stylish in all aspects, including Femke in that impeccable white suit which, by the way, she’s not afraid to murder in. That image of her on the film’s posters coincides with the film’s ending in such a delectable way; a big serotonin boost and top tier production design. You can’t emphasize enough how entertaining and satisfying it is to see a troll’s hurtful words hurt them back, something they never expect to happen when they put their hands on a keyboard. It’s a reminder that we’re all people and, as Matthew Kiernan writes, “Hell hath no fury like someone insulted on social media.”
The Columnist will have its North American premiere on demand at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
Movie Score: 4/5