Feature Article

High-Rise Visions: Surveillance, Architecture, and the Lacanian Gaze in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road

Author: Sierra Komar (n/a)

  • High-Rise Visions: Surveillance, Architecture, and the Lacanian Gaze in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road

    Feature Article

    High-Rise Visions: Surveillance, Architecture, and the Lacanian Gaze in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road


How to Cite:

Komar, S., (2022) “High-Rise Visions: Surveillance, Architecture, and the Lacanian Gaze in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road”, Film Criticism 46(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.2714

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Published on
22 Jun 2022
Peer Reviewed


And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

The gaze is not necessarily the face of our fellow being, it could just as easily be the window behind which we assume he is lying in wait for us.

—Jacques Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953–1954

In the opening scene of Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006) a camera pans across a dark room interspersed with blurry squares of light. The squares shift amorphously, hovering just out of focus, the camera’s slow movement working only to amplify their ambiguity. As if to mimic the act of ocular straining, the camera begins to close in on a single square, yet this attempt to sharpen the image merely produces an even more shapeless nebula of light and color. For a brief moment, the blur takes over. It is not until a distinctly technological glitch ripples across the image that we realize we may be looking at a screen. The subsequent shot, now both zoomed-out and in focus, confirms this speculation, revealing the mysterious squares to be the flickering screens of a CCTV grid, each displaying a different city view. Although clear-sightedness prevails, the viewer is left with a lingering sense of vision’s indeterminacy, its inexactitude. They are left, in other words, with an image of failed vision, one that, this essay argues, is central to Red Road’s treatment of surveillance, subjectivity, and desire.

Red Road tells the story of the woman behind the grid: a CCTV operator named Jackie charged with monitoring the streets of Glasgow for a private security company named “City Eye.” Bathed in the light of her screens, Jackie spends her days surfing between various camera feeds, benevolently looking in on her favorite strangers and reporting suspicious activity to the police. One day, however, she recognizes someone. During a routine check on the infamous Red Road housing estate, Jackie sees a man whom, we can assume from her disturbed and anxious reaction, she clearly knows. As she begins to stalk the man through her cameras and engage him in an increasingly intimate series of real-life interactions in and around the estate, the viewer struggles to piece together the man’s identity and his precise relationship to Jackie.

In its explicit engagement with CCTV technology, Red Road joins a long line of films that take surveillance as their primary theme. Yet, there is something that distinguishes it from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window, Michelangelo Antonioni’s widely acclaimed Blow-Up (1966), and even more recent contributions to the surveillance genre such as Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005). In a move that film theorist Jessica Lake describes as “exceptional in the context of surveillance cinema,” Red Road depicts a woman as the source of the surveillant gaze: positioning Jackie as the watcher, rather than the watched, the stalker, rather than the stalked, it disrupts a long history of cinematic surveillance narratives that portray “nearly all surveyors… [as] white, middle-class men.”1

Crucially, however, the film has also been interpreted as a challenge to one of the most iconic architectural metaphors of the twentieth century, one that has haunted the study of vision and power since the early 1980s: The Panopticon. Often associated with Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, the Panopticon was an 18th-century penitentiary design developed by philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham, one whose structure aimed to produce an experience of continuous yet unverifiable surveillance for those imprisoned within it (see figure 1). Consisting of a central guard tower encircled by individual cells, its layout was such that, although the guards in the tower would have a clear view of each of the surrounding cells, the prisoners could not see into the tower, leaving them ignorant as to exactly when—and if—they were being surveyed.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon Prison. In Jeremy Bentham and John Bowring, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Vol. IV (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), 172.

Becoming, over the years, the most widely used metaphor for surveillance, the Panopticon has recently been taken to task by critics who claim that the anonymous, disembodied gaze at its center is one that is implicitly masculine.2 It is to these critics in particular that Red Road speaks, and the film’s depiction of a uniquely female form of surveillance has been praised as a corrective to both this male-centered, Foucauldian legacy as well as to the exclusionary history of both the surveillance genre and cinema in general. This essay suggests, however, that this prevailing focus on the gender of Red Road’s protagonist leaves the film’s most valuable insights about vision in the dark. Returning to Foucault’s original account of panopticism in Discipline and Punish, I argue that to center a distinctly female mode of seeing as the basis of a critique of surveillance is to merely reinforce the disciplinary project that subtends the exercise of visual power. To shed light on Red Road’s true critique of surveillance, I suggest, one must look beyond the film’s representation of the female subject and, in fact, beyond the realm of the subject altogether.

Surprisingly for a film named after an infamous housing estate, analyses of Red Road have not focused extensively on the film’s architecture. Built between 1964 and 1968, Red Road was a housing complex located in Glasgow, Scotland, consisting of eight, multi-story tower blocks between twenty-eight and thirty-one storeys high. The tallest residential building in Europe at the time of its construction, it stared down from the Glasgow skyline for decades before being destroyed in a series of high-profile demolitions between 2012 and 2015, yet another testament to the failures of post-war mass housing. In Arnold’s eponymous film, however, the estate is called on to represent a failure of a different order: the failure of perceptual autonomy and subjective closure that Lacan calls “the gaze.”

This essay reads Red Road’s high-rise architecture through Lacan’s concept of the gaze in order to extract a different critique of panopticism, one which highlights the limits of disciplinary power rather than reproducing its logic. Often manifesting as a glitch or disruption in visual perception, as well as in the uncanny sense that something inanimate possesses a gaze of its own, the Lacanian gaze describes an intrusion of desire into the scopic field, a phenomenon directed at the subject from the object world that reveals the subject of vision as perpetually incomplete. Constantly exceeding Jackie’s CCTV screens, yet all the while drawing her closer in a false promise of completion and closure, the Red Road towers exemplify this gaze, whose unspeakable light radiates not from the eyes of any subject, but the lacuna of the missing object.

The Gendered Gaze

Jackie’s disruptive, on-screen encounter with the nameless man sends her into a spiral of anxious reactions, each of which amplifies the mystery surrounding their relationship and the danger that seems to surround him. After frantically smoking a cigarette (‘I thought you’d quit’, remarks one of her coworkers) Jackie leaves the City Eye control room in a state of disarray, returning home only to fall into a troubled sleep. Waking in the middle of the night, she rises to rummage through her laundry room, unearthing a bag of newspaper clippings from under a pile of discarded boxes and cleaning supplies. As Jackie sifts through the mess of papers, she finally pauses on one in particular: the front page of a newspaper emblazoned with the man’s face and a damning headline that reads: “BLACKIE HILL MAN GETS 10 YEARS.” The man Jackie recognized from her screen, we gather, is potentially a criminal.

The following day, cameras fixed on the Red Road high-rises, Jackie calls up a colleague to verify that the buildings house ex-convicts. Though the viewer does not hear his answer, all suspicions are confirmed when, upon returning home that evening, Jackie tracks down a clear view of the man’s face, on the grounds of Red Road, from a VHS tape of pre-recorded surveillance footage from past days. As his face is frozen, paused, on the television screen, an answering machine message plays over the image: “Jackie,” the voice says, “it’s Stuart Kincaid. I looked into things for you. There’s not much else to add, I’m afraid. He got early release for good behavior. Like I said, very sorry. It happens.”

The “he” in question, we learn, is a man named Clyde Henderson. Continuing to stalk him using the City Eye surveillance cameras, Jackie begins to supplement her view with in-person journeys to the Red Road estate, coming ever-closer to breaking her anonymity and engaging with Clyde in real life. After managing to slip, unnoticed, into a party in Clyde’s flat, we realize that whatever his relationship to Jackie, he does not recognize her. The two dance together at the party, beginning a quasi-romantic relationship that culminates in full-on sexual contact days later. Though their encounter appears to be completely consensual, Jackie leaves Red Road in a performative hysteria, using the CCTV footage of her running from the estate—as well as a series of self-inflicted wounds—to charge Clyde with sexual assault. The next day, however, she revokes her charges, and in her final interaction with Clyde, we finally learn that he was the reckless driver responsible for the death of her husband and young daughter.

In the world of Red Road, it is thus Jackie who occupies the position of scopic control. It is she who is invested with the symbolic authority to observe; it is she whose profession allows her to use (and abuse) an expansive network of surveillance technology according to her personal motivations. As Jessica Lake points out in her 2010 article “Red Road (2006) and Emerging Narratives of ‘Sub-Veillance’,” this depiction of female visual agency is far from the norm in the context of surveillance cinema, a genre which has, for the most part, extended the power of the agentic look only as far as the masculine subject. Despite over a century of films dealing with questions of surveillance, Lake argues, “the dynamics of represented surveillance situations are nearly always ‘traditional’ in that the watchers are white men.”3 Indeed, from Rear Window’s Jeff Stewart to Blow-Up’s David Bailey; from Harry Caul in The Conversation to Captain Gerd Weisler in The Lives of Others, the “Peeping Toms” that populate the canonical films of surveillance cinema are, as this colloquialism itself suggests, overwhelmingly male. Gazing out at their diegetic landscapes—and often at the women that inhabit them—this endless string of masculine detectives, policemen, and photographers testifies, for Lake, to the “cosy conceptual coupling of male voyeurism and surveillance” that plagues the history of the surveillance genre, a coupling she sees as disrupted by Red Road’s portrayal of a female voyeur.4

Of course, one could argue that this alliance between masculinity and visual power is not restricted to the particular genre of surveillance film, but is rather definitive of cinema itself, at least in its more mainstream forms. This is the famous argument advanced by Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which links Hollywood cinema to the satisfaction of the male gaze. Mainstream cinema, Muley argues, overwhelmingly privileges masculine, heterosexual vision in one of two ways: by presenting the female form in a way that can be directly objectified by the male spectator, or by providing the spectator with a masculine proxy through which they can indirectly possess, control, and objectify the female characters in the diegetic space of the screen. Identifying the active, agentic look with masculinity and passive, “to-be-looked-at-ness” with femininity, Mulvey suggests that Hollywood cinema is a male-centered visual regime, one which reinforces an understanding of “woman as image, man as bearer of the look.”5

With this context in mind, it follows that the critical reception of Red Road has placed a marked emphasis on the gender of the film’s protagonist, and particularly on her role as an active surveyor. Catherine Zimmer’s recent book Surveillance Cinema, for example, argues that Red Road “revers[es] the more expected gender roles” and “highlight[s] the dynamics between gender and surveillance,”6 while a 2007 Boston Globe review entitled “In gritty ‘Red Road’ she’s the watcher and he’s being watched” reduces the film entirety down to its portrayal of a “she” who watches.7 Similarly, Lake describes the film in terms of its “inversion of the gendered gaze,” suggesting that “in its reversal of the traditional dynamics of looking… [Red Road] reconceives surveillance in terms of voyaging and opposes the static, distanced, watching inherent in the white man’s panopticon.”8

The Panopticon: a visual apparatus that, although architectural rather than cinematic, has also been critiqued for its relationship to masculine visual dominance. Although Bentham’s proposal was never realized, the Panopticon has become an inescapable point of reference in surveillance studies thanks to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which introduced the term “panopticism” to refer to a mode of “visible yet unverifiable” surveillance that causes subjects to regulate their own behavior in the absence of external force.9 A crucial component of Foucault’s larger elaboration of disciplinary power, it has also been the subject of numerous critiques concerning its implicitly masculine understanding of vision, as well as its failure to capture the gendered dynamics of surveillance.

Sarah Pemberton, for example, writes that “Foucault pays no attention to the sex, gender, or sexuality of prisoners,”10 while Lake, in her article on Red Road, argues that “the panoptic paradigm renders bodies and social identities irrelevant to the practice of surveillance.”11 On a similar note, Torin Monahan links the Panopticon to an “enlightenment rationality of masculine control at a distance,” including it under a category of surveillance systems which are “highly masculinized, at least on a theoretical level, because they depend on disembodied representations of the world and an evacuation of social relations and contexts.”12 What these feminist critiques of Foucault suggest, in other words, is that the unmarked nature of the Panopticon’s central observer obscures how particular (male) subjects are more likely to occupy this position while others are barred from it, more likely to be placed under observation themselves. Moreover, they argue that the professed neutrality of the panoptic model severs vision from identity only to tacitly perpetuate a masculine ideal of visual perception, one that understands it as necessarily remote, abstract, and disembodied.

It is this line of critique that informs Lake’s reading of Red Road and its focus on Jackie’s gender as the film’s most noteworthy—and politically relevant—feature. Interpreting the film as a challenge to the exclusionary history of cinema and the surveillance genre, as well as a rejection of the distanced, masculinized paradigm of panoptic vision, she argues that it “challenges the alignment of surveillance with male voyeurism and suggests the existence of a distinctively female voyeur/voyager, who works to collapse distance rather than maintain it and to traverse space and screens.” Positioning Red Road as part of an effort to multiply and proliferate the gaze, to extend its power across a variety of genders and identities, she writes:

Surveillance has long been the institutionalized practice of the white man, passing his voyeuristic gaze over others. Now ‘sub-veillance’ narratives are emerging, such as those deployed by Red Road, that invite scrutiny of established theories regarding practices of surveillance and suggest that rather than equating to centralized objective and official looking it can become a deeply intimate practice of interaction, spatial habitation and movement. Where surveillance controls through optic distance, sub-veillance collapses boundaries and allows us to traverse through screens in new intimate and embodied ways.13

Lake’s analysis of Red Road effectively draws attention to some of the limitations that inhere within conventional surveillance narratives. And yet, her description of a “distinctively female voyeur/voyager, who works to collapse distance rather than maintain it,” as well as her appeal to a variety of other “sub-veillant” gazes, each of which is associated with a different, embodied subject position, contain the implicit suggestion that these alternative forms of visual subjectivity hold the potential to disrupt the exercise of visual power. Associated with intimacy, tactility, and proximity rather than objectivity, distance, and control, the female gaze that Lake describes is positioned as the antithesis of panoptic power, implying that to feminize the gaze—to wrest it from the confines of the “anonymous” central guard—is to also elude or undermine the panoptic operation. And yet, there is a fundamental flaw in the logic that would seek to replace the Panopticon’s masculine gaze with a feminine one or, for that matter, with any number of unique, individual gazes. Driving the Panopticon’s system of visual control is a more insidious regime of disciplinary power, one whose constitutive dynamics of subjectification and individualization are not just unchanged but reinforced by the appeal to the gaze’s femininity.

For Foucault, panoptic surveillance is but one component of a larger system of control he terms disciplinary power. Uniquely concerned with the creation and consolidation of identity, disciplinary power is “an expression of power that is associated with what [Foucault] calls, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, the ‘assignment’ of subjective positions, whereby individuals are allotted roles in the social world, positions that provide different possibilities for the exercise of power.”14 In order for it to operate, it thus depends on various techniques of subjectification and individualization, one of which is the type of visual surveillance afforded by the architecture of the Panopticon. Like the disciplinary architectures of the school, the military barracks, and the hospital, however, the Panopticon is less an apparatus of vision than it is an apparatus of subject production. Like a “naturalist,” it works to draw out, analyze, and classify difference, and its spatial arrangement seeks to create the conditions for the individual qualities of each prisoner to appear clearly and crisply to the central guard and to also be internalized by the subjects themselves.

The Panopticon is thus a dream not just of visual perfection, but of the perfection of discourse, and of the ability of discourse to categorize—and produce knowledge about—the subject. As Jacques-Alain Miller writes, “all Benthamic buildings are materialized classifications” in which “discourse and reality are reversible, without remainder.”15 If the entirety of the subject can be captured by identity, then no part of the subject can escape the exercise of disciplinary power, and it is this “remainder-less” categorization that the spatial and visual configuration of the Panopticon attempts to ensure. Vision in the Panopticon is thus not an inherent tool of objectification and control that must be wrested from the central guard and extended to the female subject. Rather, vision controls through its ability to submit bodies and identities through the classificatory operation of the disciplinary project, an operation which the emphasis on a specifically feminine form of vision not only fails to disrupt but inadvertently reinforces.

Put otherwise, the logic that opposes an embodied, female gaze to the Panopticon’s visual regime becomes untenable upon closer consideration of the aims and objectives of disciplinary power. Although the putatively invisible observer of the Panopticon’s central tower may indeed obscure how the positions of surveyor and surveyed are circumscribed by factors such as gender, it is not a case of disciplinary power functioning through this elision, but rather through the production and maintenance of these categories themselves and their subsequent internalization and re-articulation by subjects. The true goal of panoptic surveillance—and the disciplinary political economy it works to maintain—is for subjects to individuate themselves, to cohere their bodies and souls into a legible, differentiated surface that power can subsequently optimize and exploit. As Foucault describes it, this power is one that “categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects.”16

With this in mind, the appeal to a distinctly female form of gaze—which itself presupposes an articulable, coherent female subject that would be the source of such a gaze—merely ends up reproducing the same internalization and re-articulation of singularity through which disciplinary power is exercised. As film theorist Joan Copjec argues in her 1982 essay “The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan,” this holds true for any of the multiple, subversive gazes that one might be tempted to propose as a corrective to the universalizing, masculine gaze of disciplinary surveillance. “This simple atomization and multiplication of subject positions,” she insists, “… does not lead to a radical undermining of knowledge or power…Differences do not threaten panoptic power; they feed it.”17

To suggest that Red Road is not a story of the female gaze, however, is not to suggest that it is a story of surveillance as usual. There is another gaze that pierces the visual field of Red Road, one which, if pursued, can illuminate another possible critique of panoptic power and its regime of discipline. Unlike the female gaze, this gaze does not emerge from Jackie and her position behind the cameras, but rather from the Red Road estate itself.

The Architectural Gaze

One of the most recurrent images in all of Red Road is that of Jackie’s CCTV grid. Appearing in no less than eight separate scenes, it receives more screen time than the walls of Jackie’s own home, its rigid arrangement of grainy, moving windows becoming a surprisingly comforting constant throughout the film’s many suspenseful moments. It is a testament to the centrality of this image that, when faced with the windowed façade of the Red Road estate, one cannot help but be struck by its grid-like appearance (see figure 2). Vast, repetitive, and geometrical, the exterior of Red Road is the architectural doppelganger of Jackie’s CCTV grid, and their resemblance produces an uncanny effect: the viewer is encouraged to consider the estate as a visual apparatus in and of itself. The striking formal parallels between Red Road’s grid of windows and Jackie’s grid of CCTV screens raise the specter of reciprocal vision, the disturbing possibility that the towers, as well as being the object of Jackie’s gaze from the control room, are somehow looking back.

Figure 2:
Figure 2:
Figure 2:

Stills from Red Road.

Though Arnold’s rendition gives it a particularly paranoid spin, the image of the “seeing” building—of the building as a visual device— is not unique to the world of Red Road. Rather, it is a motif that pervades modernist imaginations of the high-rise all the way back to a 1933 drawing by Le Corbusier that depicts a disturbingly skeletal structure, stripped of all detail and decorative elements and yet topped with a massive eye that stares out from the building’s top apartment (see figure 3). An inadvertent caricature of modern architecture’s investment in vision, the sketch establishes the high-rise as that which should augment or enhance the visual ability of its occupants. As Beatriz Colomina argues, it exemplifies a shift, inaugurated by Le Corbusier’s horizontal window, from the architectural logic of the “inward gaze,” which constructed buildings to protect the interior from the exterior, to that of the outward gaze, which used architecture as a means to provide “a gaze of dominion over the exterior world.”18 In Le Corbusier’s modernism—the ethos that informed post-war mass housing developments like the Red Road estate—the building itself becomes a technology of vision, a “system for taking pictures” where the window becomes the camera lens.19

Figure 3:
Figure 3:
Figure 3:

Le Corbusier’s “Seeing” Building. In Le Corbusier, The Radiant City (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 21.

The curious, inanimate agency that seems to emanate from the Red Road towers thus speaks to the wider investments in vision and visuality that defined the modernist architectural tradition, as well as to the persistent, haunting presence of these investments in those buildings that have come to embody the failure of the modernist project. Yet, it also recalls a particular anecdote that appears in Jacques Lacan’s eleventh seminar, one which also involves the uncanny phenomenon of the object world looking back. In a section of Seminar XI entitled “Of the Gaze as Object Petit a,” Lacan tells his audience of a day in his youth spent accompanying a group of local fishermen out to sea. During his afternoon on the water, one of the men points out a shimmering sardine can floating near their fishing boat, using it as an opportunity to make a joke. “You see that can?” the fisherman says, “Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you!”20 As the men laugh, Lacan finds himself anxious and unsettled, unable to join in on their fun. This is because, he tells his audience, “it was looking at me, all the same. It was looking at me at the level of the point of light, the point at which everything that looks at me is situated.”21

This oft-cited and cryptic anecdote appears as part of Lacan’s discussion of “the gaze,” an equally cryptic phenomenon that has little in common with conventional understandings of vision and visual perception. Unlike Mulvey’s account of the male gaze and Foucault’s account of the panoptic gaze, the Lacanian gaze is not an instrument of mastery and objectification, nor a technology that assists in the disciplinary consolidation of subjectivity. In fact, it is not a property of any particular embodied subject, but rather something that the subject encounters in the object realm, as Lacan’s story of the sardine can makes explicit.

For Lacan, vision is constitutively deformed by language. Just as reality can only be experienced through the mediation of the Symbolic order—the realm of language and signifiers that brings our world into existence—so must light pass through pre-existing channels of meaning to become visual perception as we know it.22 And yet, to partake in the signifier’s promise of meaning is also to be stained by its loss. Something gets left behind by the process of signification: the signifier can never fully capture the extent of the meaning it aims to represent, and this non-correspondence between signifier and signified produces a remainder that haunts the subject in the form of a missing object, a lack or gap at the center of language and subjectivity that the subject longs to fill. That something, whose loss occasions the very emergence of the individual— “[that] something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated itself off as organ”—is what Lacan calls the objet petit a: the shifting collection of objects, people, or experiences that seem to promise the wholeness that has eluded us since we came into language and thus into being.23

Given its reliance on the signifying chain, vision is not immune from this loss nor from the missing object of desire that it produces. Rather, it is plagued by its own specifically visual manifestation of the objet petit a: the phenomenon that Lacan calls the gaze, or “the objet a in the field of the visible.”24 A perceptual token of the incompleteness of the subject, the gaze makes its presence known as an uncanny, animate agency that seems to radiate from the object world, as well as through the disturbances and interruptions it produces within the visual field. The first of these two, seemingly opposing manifestations is related to the autonomy of the signifying chain itself. Just as language has, so to speak, a life of its own due to the way in which the signifying chain both precedes the speaking subject and can function without it, so too does the network of meaning through which vision takes shape. The gaze thus materializes as the sensation of this inanimate vitality, as the momentary apprehension of the “mobile tesserae of signification” that unceasingly—yet invisibly—informs our vision, despite our fantasies of perceptual agency.25

And yet, because the object petit a is that which is missing or absent from the Symbolic, its eruption into the visual domain can also take the form of a defect or glitch in visual perception—as the breakdown of the visual. As Copjec writes, “This point at which something appears to be invisible, this point at which something appears to be missing from representation, some meaning left unrevealed, is the point of the Lacanian gaze.”26 It is this second incarnation of the gaze—the gaze as an experience of perceptual breakdown— that is expressed by the series of visual distortions and failures that emerge over the course of Jackie’s surveillance of the Red Road estate. Taking shape to the viewer through a series of tangled alleyways, the claustrophobic interiors of elevators, and bunker-like parking garages, Red Road and its surrounding infrastructure are cast as spaces that erode or elude the visual capabilities of others, and particularly those of the film’s protagonist.

From the moment Jackie sets her cameras on its steel-frame structure, the Red Road estate refuses to be captured by her view. A scene taking place shortly after she first recognizes Clyde, for example, shows Jackie slowly panning a surveillance camera across a wide and desolate landscape until it faces the Red Road towers. The building, however, eclipses the frame: cut off at the top and bottom, it seems to extend infinitely in each direction in a never-ending stream of windows that exhausts both Jackie and her camera’s capacity for vision (See figure 4).

Figure 4:
Figure 4:
Figure 4:

Still from Red Road.

A similar failure meets most of Jackie’s attempts to survey the estate throughout the film. One night, while watching a woman loitering at the entrance to one of Red Road’s parking garages, Jackie’s cameras happen upon an altogether more disturbing scene: another woman running through the labyrinthine alleys that surround the garage, seemingly being chased by a shadowy man. Afraid for the woman’s safety, Jackie quickly picks up the phone to report the incident to the police, only to stop, moments later, when she realizes that the scene she is witnessing is amorous rather than aggressive. As the man and woman embrace in a desolate, graffiti-covered lot, it becomes clear that Red Road is a space of confusion rather than clarity, a sense which is only amplified as the man turns around and reveals his face. This is the moment when Jackie first sees Clyde, coming to the disturbing realization that it is him she has been obliviously watching for much of the night.

A later scene shows Jackie splitting her attention between the various screens on her grid, one of which shows Clyde on the grounds of Red Road. Preoccupied with her observations of Clyde and the estate, she fails to register an altercation taking place on one of her other cameras, switching focus only to realize that a teenage girl has already been stabbed. What each of these scenes illustrates is how the mere presence of Red Road within Jackie’s field of vision has the effect of warping her perceptual abilities, and particularly her ability to serve as a detached and all-seeing set of disciplinary eyes. They reveal how her mysterious investment in Clyde and the housing estate clouds her judgement and objectivity, causing her to misjudge and misrecognize the scenes playing out on her grid of CCTV screens. They reveal, in other words, the way in which her visual perception is distorted by desire, the way in which she is not just an agentic, observing subject, but a subject who is herself caught within the field of the gaze. As Todd McGowan argues in The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan:

[the gaze] is not the look of the subject at the object, but the gap within the subject’s seemingly omnipotent look. This gap within our look marks the point at which our desire manifests itself in what we see… The gaze… disrupt[s] the spectator’s ability to remain… ‘all-perceiving’ and ‘absent as perceived.’27

Simultaneously the point at which vision fails and “the point at which the object looks back,” it is this gaze—the Lacanian gaze— that reverberates across the landscape of Arnold’s film. It is this gaze that manifests in the visual phenomena that surround the Red Road towers, in their strange inanimate agency and the visual disruption that they provoke; this gaze that propels the irrational currents of grief and desire that draw Jackie ever closer to Clyde and the estate. For, what drives Jackie’s forays to Red Road other than the hopes that it—or one of its inhabitants—will provide some sort of closure or meaning to the loss she has experienced?

Because its loss is constitutive of subjectivity, however, the objet petit a can never be definitively acquired or possessed. Correspondingly, the gaze that constitutes one of its manifestations can never deliver the confirmation that it promises: though it draws the subject in, intimating their fulfillment, the encounter with the gaze illuminates nothing but the absence at the heart of the subject, the groundlessness of all self-identity. “The site of a traumatic encounter with the Real, with the utter failure of the spectator’s seemingly safe distance and assumed mastery,”28 it leaves only desire and disorientation in its wake, and it is perhaps this aspect of the gaze that Red Road most compellingly of all.

The Gaze of the Other

After her first attempt to enter one of the towers is thwarted by the reception desk in the lobby, Jackie manages to slip unnoticed into the elevator with two other residents of the tower. She quickly notices, however, that her fellow riders are none other than Clyde’s friends: a couple she has observed repeatedly from the City Eye control room that appears to be living with Clyde. Luckily, it turns out, Clyde is having a house party, and Jackie passes herself off as an invited guest. Standing quietly in the corner, she attempts to blend into the crowd, but Clyde quickly approaches her, perhaps feeling the intensity of her gaze. As he moves toward Jackie ominously, the viewer anxiously readies themselves for a confrontation, perhaps even a violent one. Upon reaching Jackie, however, Clyde embraces her in a slow dance, one suffused not just with anxiety, but palpable and reciprocal desire. The opposite of what Jackie expected to find within the towers, it is this desire that seems to unsettle Jackie the most, and as their dance gets increasingly intimate, she makes an excuse and quickly leaves the building.

When she returns to the towers, bottle of whiskey in tow and looking for Clyde, he is not home. Her expectations for confrontation once again dashed, she sits tensely with Clyde’s male roommate and his girlfriend, April, anxiously dodging questions about her relationship to Clyde and her reason for visiting. As Jackie drinks quietly, we suddenly see her eyes raise, drawn to the window of their living room. It is at this moment when we realize where Jackie is. She has finally managed to access that point, behind Red Road’s glass facade, from which she has felt the gaze, that point in the field of the Other she has invested with the power to confirm her, to validate her, to bring her closure. “That’s some view,” Jackie remarks as if seeking some sort of outside agreement, and when the roommate responds noncommittally, she gets up from her seated position to approach the view herself. “Some view you’ve got,” she repeats, continuing towards the window, but the roommate merely offers another, equally nonplussed reply: “It’s all right, isn’t it?”

Jackie stops, finally at the window, camera positioned behind her so the viewer can share in her view. Yet, the glass that Jackie peers out of is streaked with dirt, covered in a thin film that obscures and distorts her view of the outside. The adjacent window is completely fogged up: entirely opaque, it is impossible to see out of. What can be seen out the window is merely another one of Red Road’s towers rising from the pavement, its grid of windows directly facing Clyde’s living room. It is as if the gaze, at the very moment that Jackie believes she has taken possession of it, immediately migrates across the way and re-materializes itself in the form of the other tower. Slipping out of her grasp, it stares at her anew. As Lacan writes, “it is precisely in seeking the gaze… that you will see it disappear.”29

Jackie leaves her view, sitting back down until Clyde’s male roommate draws his girlfriend and Jackie back to the window. “You want to feel the wind?” he asks, proceeding to throw open the windowpanes and blast Jackie and April with a strong gust of air. Disoriented but exhilarated, the three characters stand at the window until, all of a sudden, the male roommate grabs April and begins to dangle her out the window as she struggles and screams. After being returned to the ground, April runs out of the living room, and the male roommate laughs apologetically. “April, I was having a laugh with you!” he insists, and when Jackie reprimands him for frightening her, she is unceremoniously ejected from Clyde’s flat. Visibly shaken, Jackie leaves the apartment, and it is not until she is attempting to board the bus which will take her far from the estate that she realizes that Clyde’s roommate has stolen her wallet. In a rather literal manifestation of the gaze’s identity-destabilizing effects, Jackie leaves the Red Road grounds no longer in possession of any identification.

What the scene of Jackie in Clyde’s apartment makes clear is how the encounter with the gaze is not subjectively affirming, but subjectively annihilating. Though we, like Jackie, may attempt to connect it with specific people, places, or entities, which we subsequently invest with the power to resolve our incoherencies, to suture the places where we have been severed, these associations merely provide temporary relief from the truth: the external gaze of the Other will not affirm the structure of our subjectivity or give a definitive shape to our formless desire. Once confronted, it inevitably leaks out from its provisional container, taking with it any promise of confirming a given subject’s being, desire, or identity. As Copjec writes:

When you encounter the gaze of the Other, you meet not a seeing eye but a blind one. The gaze is not clear or penetrating, not filled with knowledge or recognition; it is clouded over and turned back on itself, absorbed in its own enjoyment. The horrible truth… is that the gaze does not see you. So, if you are looking for confirmation of the truth of your being or the clarity of your vision, you are on your own; the gaze of the other… will not validate you.30

It is by veiling the absence of this nonexistent Other that the Panopticon implicates the subject within the flows of knowledge and power constitutive of the disciplinary regime. Through particular configurations of space and visibility, it compels the subject to internalize and re-articulate an image of themselves that may or may not exist, to contort themselves in the shape of a singular, unique subjectivity which is then re-absorbed within power’s grasp. As Copjec also notes, and as we have seen realized in the case of the female gaze, this system of power is a pessimistic one, one which appears to permit no outside and which is, therefore, “ultimately resistant to resistance.”31 And yet, what Lacan’s account of the gaze presents us is not a theory of a visual subject who somehow exceeds or escapes the individualizing process of disciplinary power, but rather a theory of how the limits inherent to discourse itself produce a negativity within this visual subject, one which corrodes its coherence from within. What it emphasizes, in other words, is how desire persists in the subjective productions of the disciplinary project, to the effect that something in the subject will always tend towards its own undoing.

If Jackie does find closure in the film, it is only when she realizes that Clyde cannot give it to her. It emerges, in other words, from the revelation that there is no closure, subjective or otherwise: no singular person or piece of meaning that will release her from her tragedy or substantiate her formless grief. After withdrawing her charges against him and revealing her identity, Jackie meets Clyde on the grounds of Red Road, and the two discuss the fatal accident that killed her husband and daughter. The insight that Clyde shares, however, is that he has no insight: he was drunk, there was no logic, and he is deeply apologetic. The final shot of the film shows Jackie walking down the street. As she walks, the camera abruptly shifts from the sidewalk view to an aerial one, from high-quality film to the grainy and pixelated quality of the surveillance camera. It is the same type of view we have seen repeatedly throughout the film, yet this final surveillance footage differs from the others in one important way: it is no longer claimed by Jackie. Severed from its usual diegetic witness, there is something especially uncanny about this final, anonymous perspective. Evoking that “point at which everything that looks at me is situated,” it leaves the viewer looking over their shoulder, acutely aware not just of the disciplinary gaze, but of the vicissitudes that plague the fields of vision and identity as their very condition.

Author Biography

Sierra Komar is a writer and archivist based out of Montréal, Québec whose research explores the intersection of architecture and visual culture. She holds an MA from McGill University (Department of Art History & Communication Studies) and her work has been published in Real Life Magazine and Textual Practice.


  1. Jessica Lake, “Red Road (2006) and Emerging Narratives of ‘Sub-Veillance’,” Continuum 24, no. 2 (2010): 231.
  2. Maša Galič, Tjerk Timan, and Bert-Jaap Koops, “Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation,” Philosophy & Technology 30, no. 1 (2016): 10.
  3. Lake, “Red Road (2006) and Emerging Narratives of ‘Sub-Veillance’,” 235. Thomas Levin has traced the origins of the surveillance genre all the way back to the birth of cinema itself, pointing out how one of the first films ever made—the Lumière Brothers’ Workers Leaving the Factory—can itself be considered an instance of workplace surveillance. See Thomas Levin, “Rhetoric of the Temporal Index: Surveillant Narration and the Cinema of ‘Real Time’,” in CTRL [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, ed. Thomas Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 58.
  4. Lake, “Red Road (2006) and Emerging Narratives of ‘Sub-Veillance’,” 235.
  5. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 837.
  6. Catherine Zimmer, Surveillance Cinema (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 70.
  7. Ty Burr, “In Gritty ‘Red Road’ She’s the Watcher and He’s Being Watched,” Boston Globe, May 5, 2007.
  8. Lake, “Red Road (2006) and Emerging Narratives of ‘Sub-Veillance’,” 239.
  9. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 201.
  10. Sarah Pemberton, “Enforcing Gender: The Constitution of Sex and Gender in Prison Regimes,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 39, no. 1 (2013): 151.
  11. Lake, “Red Road (2006) and Emerging Narratives of ‘Sub-Veillance’,” 232.
  12. Torin Monahan, “Dreams of Control at a Distance: Gender, Surveillance, and Social Control,” Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies 9, no. 2 (2008): 291.
  13. Lake, “Red Road (2006) and Emerging Narratives of ‘Sub-Veillance’,” 239.
  14. Ellen K Feder, “Power/Knowledge,” in Michel Foucault: Key Concepts, ed. Dianna Taylor (London; New York: Routledge, 2011), 59.
  15. Jacques-Alain Miller, “Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptic Device,” trans. Richard Miller, October 41 (1984): 16.
  16. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley (The New Press, 2001), 331.
  17. Joan Copjec, “The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan,” October 49 (1989): 55. Of course, the main object of critique within Copjec’s seminal essay is not the female gaze, but the gaze as it appears in the work of 1970s psychoanalytic film theorists Jean-Louis Baudry, Christian Metz, and Jean-Louis Comolli (the theoretical lineage from which Mulvey’s account of the “male gaze” would also emerge). By associating the gaze with mastery, control, and the process by which the spectator identifies themselves with the cinematic image, Copjec argued, these theorists were guilty of radically misrepresenting Lacan’s own conception of the gaze and his more profound insights on the relationship between vision and subjectivity. “The gaze” as it appears in the work of Lacan (and as it is understood in the lineage of Copjec) will be discussed in detail later on in this essay.
  18. Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), 306.
  19. Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, 311.
  20. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 95.
  21. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, 95.
  22. The Symbolic order constitutes one of the tripartite registers of Lacanian psychoanalysis, along with the Imaginary (the realm of ego and self-image associated with the Mirror Stage) and the Real (that which has not yet been symbolized, that which is cancelled out or annihilated during the process of signification).
  23. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, 103. The objet petit a is thus aligned with the order of the Real: it is, as Bruce Fink writes, “…the residue of the symbolization process that is situated in the register of the real…” Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 173.
  24. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, 105.
  25. Bryson, “The Gaze in the Expanded Field,” 92.
  26. Copjec, “The Orthopsychic Subject,” 69.
  27. Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 6.
  28. Todd McGowan, “Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and Its Vicissitudes,” Cinema Journal 42, no. 3 (2003): 29.
  29. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, 89.
  30. Joan Copjec, Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists (London: Verso, 2015), 36.
  31. Copjec, Read My Desire, 36.