The internet is a vile place. Anyone who has ever posted an opinion that was subsequently piled on with horrible comments by a hoard of strangers knows this. Social media creates a space in which there are no consequences, allowing for anyone to harass, curse, and threaten people they don’t know for simply disagreeing with them. Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist attacks this culture with bloody comedy, creating a layered film with his presentation of complicated ideas, although at times it doesn’t dig deep enough.
Femke Boot (Westworld’s Katja Herbers) is a columnist who is fed up with receiving hateful messages in response to what she writes. It is never specified exactly what she is writing, but the comments she receives are almost exclusively from men, criticizing her for her feminist views. Femke decides to take things into her own hands and exact revenge on the cyberbullies who thought they were immune from any real consequences. She begins to track down her attackers and murder them in various ways while always cutting off their middle finger as a souvenir.
The Columnist is set in a deadpan world that is a couple steps away from reality in order to employ black comedy. The only issue is that it doesn’t fully commit to this atmosphere, so the comedy isn’t always successful. Femke’s murders are played out in a surreal manner, where no one really reacts the way they’re supposed to, which is supposed to result in a comedic murder scene. There are times where the film does succeed in using this tone, like in a montage of Femke’s murders spliced with her writing furiously, all played out to cheerful music. Unfortunately, this scene feels out of place because the other comedic points fall too short.
At the same time, it is amusing to watch the scum of the internet get punished for the horrible things they say online. One of the most frustrating things about internet trolls is that you can’t really do anything about them. Femke at one point goes to the police to file a report, stating that she is receiving death threats. The officer responds by suggesting that she should just stay off the internet. Situations like online harassment and law enforcement’s unableness (or unwillingness) to do anything can make the victim feel utterly powerless, but Femke refuses this concept, as she hunts down her enemies and destroys them herself.
It is empowering to see this story with a woman protagonist as the lead. Women are often harassed online much more than men, specifically women journalists. Often receiving threats of rape, murder, or being doxxed, women put up with a lot of harassment for simply being online and stating an opinion. Sites like 4chan and Reddit have unfortunately created environments for internet trolls to thrive, specifically when expressing their hatred for feminists. But no social media site is blameless; harassment occurs on every platform to an exhausting degree.
However, because the protagonist is a female who is getting harassed for her feminist views, is she easier to root for than if the film had featured a white man voicing his racist ideas? Feminism obviously doesn’t equate to racism, but the film heavily advocates for freedom of speech, with Femke stating at one point, “I can say anything.” This is true, and she follows up with the fact that while she cannot be silenced, people also have the right to criticize what she is saying. On a surface level, of course, we are going to root for the woman who just wants to be able to state an opinion without her life being threatened, but on a deeper level, one could view the film as a rallying cry for racists and bigots to be able to say what they want without being condemned for it.
Ivo van Aart has constructed an entertaining film, that is certain. Although the dark comedy doesn’t always land, Katja Herbers’s performance is enough to carry the whole film. Still, to fully address the complexities of freedom of speech in today’s digital culture, the message needs more consideration. So although the film is rich with complex ideas, although not explored thoroughly, The Columnist is still a violent criticism of today’s social media landscape.