Fantasia Film Fest 2020 Review: ‘The Columnist’

I’ve had my many run-ins with cyberbullying. The thought has, and will probably continue to cross my mind, that if I ever met some of these bullies I’m going to give them a piece of my mind. Avo Van Aart’s new film The Columnist takes that sentiment to a whole different level. Actress Katja Herbers stars as an author, former columnist, and homicidal maniac that uses murder to cure writer’s block. This absurdist black comedy goes deep into the psyche of a woman who is tired — tired of patriarchy and tired of cyberbullying.

I can’t blame her. Social media is a hellscape, especially during a pandemic. Angry and bored, people are stuck in their homes. While it is just the Internet, sometimes those harsh words penetrate deep and make people snap. That makes for an exciting story. I just wish the lead character was written with some tact and intelligence instead of making her an overly emotional wreck.

The film opens with best selling Dutch author Femke Boot (Herbers) on a panel discussing race in the Netherlands. Also on the panel is fellow author Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen) who outright dismisses anything she says. She’s clearly a woman who cares about social justice, but is punished for it on social media.  

She is heavily cyber bullied by men and it’s distracting her from important tasks — namely finishing her next book. She tracks down one of her online abusers and discovers her next door neighbors are among many participating in the smear campaign against her. Fed up with everyone’s bullshit, she takes matters into her own hands — and her cyberbullies start dying. 

Katja Herbers is charismatic and charming as Femke, a soft spoken, introverted woman who is both a sadist and a masochistic. When she’s ready to be violent, all her nervous energy turns into unadulterated rage. It’s fun at first, and Herbers is having a good time being over the top, but her alter ego isn’t allowed to be more than that. The choices she makes boggles the mind and it doesn’t add anything to her character, she exists in this way because the script says so, not because her sloppiness says anything about her behavior.  

The Columnist is a supervillain origin story. Films tend to follow the hero’s journey, but not how a seemingly good person who cares about important issues becomes a justified psychopath and, consequently, a misanthropic serial killer. The film teeters loosely in the middle without picking a side until the end when Femke is at the other side of her corruption arc. Until then, what is the movie trying to say? That women can’t handle the internet? That we should all confront our bullies? By the end of the movie, the revenge schtick sputters out, but nonetheless the film is still entertaining.