Movies · Reviews

‘The Columnist’ Bites Back

Katja Herbers is all of us as a woman dealing with online abuse in a bloody, cathartic way.
Katja Herbers in The Columnist
Pief Weyman
By  · Published on August 20th, 2020

Fantasia International Film Festival runs August 20th through September 2nd as a completely online event. We’re used to attending in person in beautiful Montreal, Canada, but we’re excited to cover this fantastic festival virtually too. Our coverage of this year’s Fantasia Festival continues with our review of The Columnist.

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time on social media knows that it’s a hellscape of verbal violence, insults, and wholly inappropriate behaviors — and that’s just your interactions with family members. Bring faceless strangers into the mix, and it becomes the new wild West as death threats, vile terms, and worse fly fast and loose across the web. But inexplicably, again and again, those on the receiving end keep returning for more.

Femke Boot (Katja Herbers, Westworld) is no stranger to the attacks, but while both common sense and her writer boyfriend advise her to never read the comments, she can’t help herself. A popular columnist, she’s used to commenters disagreeing with her posts, but as the attacks step up in volume and seriousness — the latest wave is accusing her of being a pedophile — she grows increasingly bothered. Most are from strangers, but when she discovers her otherwise friendly neighbor is one of the brutally foul horde something within her snaps. And it’s soon followed by the snapping of the neighbor’s neck after she pushes him off the roof.

The Columnist is a sharp commentary on the darkest, but all too common aspect of our collective online behavior. Far too many of us find it far too easy to “say” something about or even to someone on social media that we almost certainly wouldn’t say in person. For all the positive aspects of the online world, it makes for an ugly place when abusive language, threats, and worse are tossed about so frequently and with abandon. Director Ivo van Aart and writer Daan Windhorst have created a darkly entertaining response to it all, and the result is a film that’s as cathartic as it is damning.

Femke is the clear protagonist here as most of us have experienced some manner of the treatment she’s receiving, and as she herself argues to her tormenters, why can’t these people just be nice? Disagree if you must, but do it calmly, nicely, and without death threats — is that really so difficult? The answer is yes, apparently, but while Femke tries to step away by literally cutting her router’s power cord and swapping out her smartphone for an old-school model without internet access, she can’t help but be pulled back in. Herbers nails the conflicting motivations of her character, and her feelings, if not her actions, are relatable to anyone who’s spent any amount of time on Twitter.

Windhorst’s script feels at times like a more modern riff on Joel Schumacher’s fantastic Falling Down. The caustic, frustrating human interactions remain, but now they’re all done virtually. Well, the in-person acts of violence and revenge remain, of course, as Femke begins tracking her most vocal and virulent commenters down to deliver her bloody reply, and that’s where The Columnist finds its most interesting angle.

Running counter to Femke’s own narrative is that of her daughter Anna (Claire Porro) who’s taken up a mission at her high school to highlight the importance of free speech. People are killed in some countries simply for saying things critical of others or of their government, and both mother and daughter firmly believe that the freedom to speak your mind is a right to be cherished and fought for. But even as Femke agrees with her daughter’s crusade, she can’t help but take the opposing tact in her own life — people who’ve harmed her only with words must pay with their lives.

She’s too caught up in the cycle of online rage to even note the hypocrisy, and that in turn works to challenge the viewers as well. It’s hard to ignore the satisfying thrills that come from her various acts of revenge towards some vile people, but the film is always there to remind us that while their violence was merely done with language, hers is built on permanent acts of life-ending carnage. We’re still cheering her on, of course, but we’ll most likely feel bad about it a few minutes later.

Additional threads run through The Columnist including a reminder for us all that people, like books, shouldn’t be judged merely by their “cover.” The friendly neighbor is actually an asshole. Steven Dood (Bram van der Kalen), a horror writer who dresses in black and critiques Femke’s “be nice” argument, is actually the most pleasant character in the film as he takes up domestic duties as her caring boyfriend. It carries over to more of her targets leading to a third act that sees her forced to make one last call regarding how she should react when her enemy fails to live up to her imagination.

The Columnist is simple on its face, perhaps too much so for a topic this timely and caustic, but it remains a sharp response to the reality that is social media as people will always be cruel, insensitive pricks behind the anonymous protection of the online world. So the question becomes a simple one. How will we respond? The answer is complicated, but the best advice remains the simplest — never read the comments.

Follow our coverage of Fantasia 2020 here.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.