When journalist Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) is interviewed on live TV about her recent experiences with online trolls, her calls for greater civility and respect on social media platforms is interrupted by — you guessed it — a troll. She can hardly get a sentence out when the sexist commentator interrupts, talks over her, dismisses her statements with whataboutisms and a sneering disregard for her viewpoint.
Boot has a mighty big ax to grind in this timely black comedy from director Ivo van Aart (One of the Boys, Suspicious Minds). And she might just take a literal ax to her nemeses, acting on a bloody whim that many of us have nursed in the darkness of our souls when an expert troll has succeeded in disturbing our equilibrium. She reads the comments — threats to her well-being left on her online articles — late into the night. One of them says, “I know where you live.” She glances with apprehension at her bedroom door.
Herbers is a delight to watch. She’s humorless, irritable, and perpetually annoyed, yet somehow likable. Although the character is bitter, she embodies relatable qualities, not the least of which is her detachment from her work obligations, which grow increasingly meaningless as her darker desires take hold. She listens, meekly, while her superiors blather on, but her mind is elsewhere. As her boss berates her for not mentioning a forthcoming book on the recent TV segment, she stares at the memo spike on the desk with a glimmer of passion, and the music strikes a sinister note. You can practically see the gears turning.
Boot hovers somewhere between sympathetic and monstrous, particularly when she makes the decision to take matters into her own hands and starts stalking and slaying her online trolls. The moment she snaps happens at a supermarket as she’s strolling the aisles but is distracted by the comments flooding her Facebook and Twitter feeds. Glaring wild-eyed at the mug of one paunchy detractor that she recognizes as her next-door neighbor, she drops a jar of pasta sauce and stares at the resulting mess.
Victim number one: Once he’s dispatched, pushed from the roof while engaged in home repairs, she finally allows herself a gratifying smile.
The comedy here, as throughout the film, is understated and often dialogue-driven. Van Aart knows that comedy works best when it’s played straight. It also comes in visual cues, like Boot’s futile attempts to write a novel. She labels the computer file “novel attempt number 4” and, later, “novel attempt number 9.” And when she surprises one hapless victim in his kitchen late at night, she puts on a friendly demeanor that’s at odds with her murderous intent, catching him off guard.
That’s part of the key to the film’s comedic success. Boot is charming, disarming, and sweet until she lets her anger show. Her victims come to know why she’s targeted them and in no uncertain terms. And, up to a point, we relish watching her take unholy revenge.
She’s not just killing them. She’s owning them first, to use the online term for oneupmanship.
Plenty of blood and gore make this one a winner for die-hard horror fans. Boot even severs her victims’ fingers to take as souvenirs. But it’s all tongue-in-cheek. It’s gruesome, but not particularly scary. It’s actually rather absurd. “Why can’t we have differing opinions and just be nice about it?” Boot queries her victims before slaughtering them, oblivious to the irony of the situation. Her murder spree plays out against a backdrop of familial life. She strives for a balance between domestic normalcy and her darker ambitions, which grow increasingly sadistic. Her vendetta drives a wedge between her and her daughter.
But, for anyone wishing to indulge in their revenge fantasies against sexist trolls from the safe distance afforded by a home computer or cinema screen, Boot is the anti-heroine you may be looking for. And The Columnist is a sly commentary on a particularly unpleasant fact of the Internet age. Despite the widespread belief that trolling is ultimately harmless, words have consequences. Comedy, horror, not rated, 86 minutes, in Dutch with English subtitles, Amazon Prime, FandangoNOW, and Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema (at select theaters), 3.5 chiles