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An aspiring performer goes to Hollywood to pursue her dreams but ends up being forced into drug abuse and prostitution: this is not an uncommon narrative arc used to highlight the murky spaces that cloud the entertainment industry. Irish director Scott Altman’s feature-length debut Red Carpet navigates a similar terrain to depict the story of a young singer-songwriter named Mandy (played by emerging music talent Wittie Hughes). The protagonist’s fate is, indeed, spelled out in the first scene, where a tarot card reader predicts her “foolish decisions”, her “need to be careful”, and the “distant reality” of her aspirations. But the allure of the film lies elsewhere, not particularly on the narrativization of its thematic complexities.
Shot in seven days on a shoestring budget, this independent production follows Mandy’s struggle to fame after repeated sexual abuse, torture, and physical confinement. While sauntering around Hollywood boulevard, she gets invited to a pool party by a stranger selling ripped-off CDs. Later that night, she binge-drinks before overdosing on cocaine, only to find herself trapped in a blue-walled room the day after. This room belongs to a house occupied by a pimp, his mute and masked confidant, and a few other girls who were trafficked to the trade earlier. Thus begins the cycle of exploitation with a threadbare plot and no significant surprises.
Red Carpet, however, excels in creating a dazzling audio-visual atmosphere. Its colour scheme, lighting, fluid camerawork and drone shots are carefully choreographed alongside a heady cocktail of hip-hop beats. Shadow (Nicholas Lee), the tooth-grilled pimp, spends most of his time inebriated around his trusted aides. His house – saturated with neon lights, hallucinogenic plants, rap music, and pole-dancing women – swamps the narrative’s time and space. Undeniably, there is a seductive charm in the conceptual design of Shadow’s underground life. Apart from intermittent instances of abuse and a lesbian liaison, the film sustains its dramatic pulse with such captivating vibes.
During confinement, Mandy channels her angst into lyrical expressions; the experience of captivity gives birth to the ideal of freedom in her songs. But Altman’s guerrilla-style storytelling does not achieve its full potential to dramatise Mandy’s conflicts. Three out of the four leading actors are debutants and all the scenes were unrehearsed. Despite this, the drama flattens out largely due to slapdash dialogues and over-explanation. There is also a lack of nuance in the causal chain of narrative progression. Overall, it does not provide anything new to expand upon the hackneyed notions of sex trafficking in the world of glitz and glamour.
The director’s technical expertise and intuitive finesse distinctly shine through in his ability to establish a unique mood for Red Carpet. Moments of aesthetic brilliance take the lead over plot development or emotional weight. Though all the characters appear unique and intriguing at first or on the surface, their depths remain unexplored throughout the narrative. As the film nears its climax, murders and mayhem dominate the screen to impart a thrilling ending to an otherwise soggy drama. One cannot help but yearn for more from a director who holds abundant promise. Nonetheless, it is a debut that certainly marks an important point, if not the best one, in Scott Altman’s career.