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The Red Riding Trilogy

Dirs: Julian Jarrold (1974), James Marsh (1980), and Anand Tucker (1983)

Ratings: 3.5, 2.0 and 1.5 / 5.0

IFC Films

105, 96 and 104 Minutes

In its ambitiousness and scope, the Red Riding suite is an interesting effort. A noir trilogy based on David Peace’s quartet of novels, the three films aspire towards creating a group portrait of an era of English history, the Thatcher years, as well as a fictionalized procedural, exhaustively rendered, of a major criminal investigation of that period, that of the Yorkshire Ripper. Each of the films is helmed by a different director and shot in a different format, each is theoretically meant to stand alone as a film independent of the other two, although the narrative of the underlying conspiracy that drives the Ripper’s killings in these films, an alliance of corrupt police officers and wealthy, perverted property tycoons, stays consistent throughout and is ultimately what carries us through the three films. Taking the title rather literally, the Ripper’s killings are, unlike the real-life version’s, applied to young girls, all Little Red Riding Hoods to the Ripper’s Big Bad Wolf.

Released with minimal fanfare or notice as a series of TV movies in the UK last year, Red Riding has been the recipient of a lot of retroactive recognition, due to a few well-received festival appearances. One British critic, David Thomson, claims it’s better than The Godfather, which is itself an opinion that’s worse than The Godfather 3. Red Riding’s really only kind of all right, a series of diminishing returns with maybe one intact film in there, followed by a weak spin-off and completed by a lame clip show/feel-bad schmaltzfest.

In the first film, 1974, a budding journalist (Andrew Garfield) stumbles across a deeply ingrained conspiracy through his investigations of a young girl’s awful murder. The portrait of corruption that this film achieves is the series’ most restrained, not in its content, which is horrifying throughout, but in its resistance to basically having a shadowy man insidiously stroking a purring cat in his lap. It’s the best-looking movie, shot on Super-16mm (1980 is in 35mm and 1983 makes the worst case for the RED that I’ve ever seen), wonderfully stylized and also strikingly edited, Roeg-like at times, capturing our hero’s psychological state and thought processes by repeatedly circling around and flashing on specific images that establish a definite idea of where his thoughts are wandering and what mental connections he’s making, all sans voice-over or hand-holding. For what is ultimately not a very exceptional film, there are a couple of remarkable bits of filmmaking in it, including a legitimately breathtaking sequence at a burned up junkyard that I’m just gonna go ahead and call “Tarkovskian.” What I like about this film is that our hero’s a real shithead, telling his editor he’s got his fingers crossed that his assignment’s a serial case, aping Belmondo’s whole look and vibe shamelessly without picking up on much outside the artifice of “cool.” By the film’s Taxi Driver by way of Sword of Doom conclusion, you feel a little bit proud of the guy, even if he has just basically gone nuts and self-immolated.

The second movie’s a pile-up of misery served up with a side of superfluous backstory, a stab at making the movie “more than what it is,” rather than allowing it the same degree of self-actualization that our previous hero was given. It opens with a documentary sequence that establishes the outrage residents had over the Ripper case, the deterioration the city experienced since the first film (it gets grimier and grimier with each successive film), and also a reiteration of that film’s more casual observations about the sexual inequalities of the time, this time placed front and center. Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is sent into Yorkshire to investigate the investigation, and finds himself confronted by a not-shockingly resistant group of officers. The last half of the movie or so is basically an extended torture sequence and unceremonious murder, meant to have a sort of chilling “one of a million stories in the naked city” kind of vibe, but ultimately making its, somewhat more interesting, explorations of male predatory behavior in a variety of forms (such as Hunter’s long-running and apparently misleading affair with his coworker) rendered superfluous by the fact that his death doesn’t have any impact within the context of this film, but only within the context of the larger trilogy. It doesn’t stand on its own; it’s artificially bloated to serve as an installment in a series.

The Red Riding films sustain a feeling of malicious dread throughout, and the conspiracy between the corrupt police and wealthy villain-types that crushes Yorkshire dead over the course of the series film is well-developed and outlined, even though it eventually becomes nothing more than a malicious catchphrase (“This is the North, where we do what we want!” repeated ad nauseum in the second and third films, like a neo-noir “Welcome to the OC, bitch!”), but the series fails in claiming that the films should all stand on their own when they clearly do not. 1974 has the fortune of being the first, it comes together and concludes in a definitive way, and it’s not a horrible movie, so despite the fact that the overall “conspiracy” is not fully resolved, it doesn’t feel incomplete or leaky in some way. The other two films inevitably respond to the events of the first and expand upon them, even though they look and feel different. The result is that the varying installments get their wires crossed, for example, the third film “reintroduces” a character that was already a major part of both of the first movies, and treats him like a ghost floating throughout, as if we weren’t already familiar with him.
Maybe this would work if you only saw the third one, but it doesn’t work in the context of the others. Both of the sequels resort to using clips from previous installments to tell their stories, and both ultimately feel cheesy for it.

The third film is out and out bad. Although it’s simultaneously more interesting and more endearing than the second, it is also by far the most hideous and ineptly made, employing a color palette that only a mother could love and a sense of schmaltziness, combined with ridiculously overbearing gravitas, call it schmaltzitas, that kind of renders it unwatchable. It’s about a social worker, John Piggott (Mark Addy), a lonely drunk (nice touch using the Fat City music) asked to visit the mentally handicapped kid jailed for the Yorkshire killings years earlier, now that new bodies have started to surface. He doesn’t save the kid, he doesn’t save the town, but he saves one girl, arms stretched out like Christ on the cross, a happy ending that’s not happy but is meant to provide some sort of an escapist relief, and instead offers nothing. Unbearably bleak while claiming it isn’t, it undermines its bleakness and also doesn’t achieve anything resembling happiness. The effect of the gut punch is subdued, the effect of the joy is non-existent, the slight poof of an airy fart is all that remains, and the gut punch becomes instead that that’s the culmination of this slightly tortuous five hour journey.

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