The Columnist, or De Kuthoer, is an excellent black comedy thriller about the price of free speech and its problematic consequences.
The Columnist (or De Kuthoer) is the story of Femke, who woke up one morning and realized she’d had enough. I couldn’t help echoing the opening line of Helen Zahavi’s “Dirty Weekend” (adapted for film by Michael Winner, 1993), one of my favorite books when I had only just reached adulthood: the reaching of the last straw felt just the same in Femke. Femke’s issue wasn’t men in general, though; and unlike Dirty Weekend, this isn’t a feminist story: the eponymous columnist is suffering from nasty internet trolls.
Femke (Katja Herbers) is a woman unused to standing up for herself – perhaps she hasn’t often needed to – and naively wishes everyone could just be nice when disagreeing with her “leftie” opinions. But then she discovers that she can place a face to one of the names against her article’s viler comments and finds a way to strike back. She discovers that violence against her haters is both easy and cathartic, and the story escalates into a revenge/murder thriller… all while she is trying to nurture a new relationship, bond with her daughter, and progress her career. The Columnist shows us that a modern woman can possibly do everything, if only she didn’t take Twitter so personally.
Herbers is excellent as Femke, soft and introverted at first and gradually giving in to a dark compulsion to react to the haters. The secondary cast is just as good, and very strong support: her new partner Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen), a different kind of writer; and her daughter Anna (Claire Porro), both of whom ground her in real life as much as they can, but are aware there is something going unsaid at home. A couple of minor characters have some interesting perspectives too. A friend of Femke reckons the harassment couldn’t have been too bad, or else she would have gone to the police instead of the TV; and her publisher just wants to use it for publicity around her coming book. Many possible angles about the issue of stones thrown online are raised in The Columnist: a writer is entitled to say “everything”, but their readers aren’t; it’s both a crime and not quite one; it’s what writers should expect these days. None of these themes are explored with much depth, but so many perspectives are raised throughout the film that it certainly demonstrates how complex the issue of free speech can be. Even each of her victims has their own comments to add.
Just as there is a balancing act to be played between censorship and free speech, The Columnist plays a balancing act in genre styles too. Director Ivo van Aart presents something which is almost a slasher (considering the single-minded murderer and her bloody souvenirs) and almost a comedy; both perhaps to the same degree as Sightseers or A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life. I have to wonder what the reasoning was behind the main character being a woman: is it funnier (or unbelievable) to see a writer snap if she is female; or is it that a female writer faces a wider range of risks?
Entertaining though it was, I’m still not entirely sure if I would use the word “horror” to describe The Columnist. Sure, there is horror in being stalked and receiving filthy insults; there is horror in the way many people don’t care about the feelings of those they write about. The Columnist is probably best described as a light thriller on the surface, with those serious issues underneath. Food for thought, and have some fun while you digest it.
This review was filed from FrightFest 2020. You can check our full coverage of the festival by clicking these words.