RED RIDING Trilogy: Fractured Fairy Tales

1 09 2010

Lucky you.

This week marks the DVD release of one of the best films of 2009 – really, one of the best films of its kind ever made – but better still, it’s not just one film, it’s three. Who says you have to sacrifice quantity for quality? Not Steven Spielblog! That’s who not!

The RED RIDING trilogy, first broadcast last spring in installments on the BBC, isn’t a miniseries in the strict sense. It’s comprised of interconnected, but independent feature films, each shot by a different director, featuring different protagonists, but many of the same ancillary characters – characters who disappear, then resurface in other chapters in the most surprising, and shocking, ways.

Andrew Garfield, who, following his Spider Bar Mitzvah, will become a Spider Man. L'Chaim!

The trilogy is based on a series of novels by the author David Peace, who took real notorious British serial killings, and created fictions around them. So, these films aren’t so much based on true stories as they are imagined out, from true tragedies. That combination, that blurred line, is unnerving right from the start – in the best way. Each film takes place in a different year, the year of the crime on which it’s based: 1974, 1980, and 1983. The first of the trio, directed by Julian Jarrold, is perhaps strongest of all, and that’s saying plenty. In it, Andrew Garfield (soon to be your friendly neighborhood Spider Man,) plays Eddie Dunford, a cocky young Yorkshire journalist who becomes obsessed with the disappearances of several local girls. Dunford’s descent is simply hypnotic… The second chapter, by James Marsh, follows Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine,) a detective brought in to conduct an internal investigation of the 1974 events. It’s the least satisfying of the three parts, the middle chapter often is – but it is necessary. A rightly bitter pill. And 1983 by Anand Tucker – you know, I won’t spoil 1983. Let’s just say 1983 was a very good year, and leave it there.

The ambition of this saga is matched by its consistency; though each director brings fresh eyes to his portion of the puzzle, all three pieces are equally well performed, well photographed, and designed. The period costumes are spot-on, and the subtle stylistic shifts between ’74, ’80, and ’83 prove fascinating to parse out, especially on a marathon viewing – as mine was. It’s hard not to draw a comparison to the recent American film that’s come closest to this impeccable crime saga, David Fincher’s ZODIAC, which, though it too spanned decades of investigation, ultimately was a slave to its own exhaustive historical accuracy.


That film, like these three, told the story of men obsessed with uncovering the motives behind unthinkable brutality. But in addition to the asset of not having Jake Gyllenhaal as its lead, RED RIDING benefits by comparison from its source material’s liberated revisionism. Scene for scene, it’s more gripping than ZODIAC, because it’s not bound by the requirements of a factually flawless procedural. The experience of RED RIDING is more subjective, more surreal – and it’s scarier, too. Really, in terms of sheer entertainment value, the last serial killer story that came close to it was Fincher’s breakout film, and still his best, SE7EN.

While RED RIDING takes its name from a fairy tale about a beast (a “Mr. B.B. Wolf,”) swallowing up an innocent, this is less a modern fairy tale itself than a rumination on themes found throughout fairy tales: namely, virtue and cruelty, and the rescue of the former from belly of the latter. Far outside the realm of fantasy, RED RIDING’s many characters fall into shades of grey between the poles of purity & impurity. And the search for objective truth across this spectrum yields results that would make the Grimms proud… Meaning, the results are for the most part pretty black.

So, lucky you! You get to see the RED RIDING trilogy for the first time. What could be better? I’ll tell you what: how about not waiting three days for the DVD to arrive from Netflix’s distribution center in scenic Los Gatos, CA. All three of these haunting films are streaming, care of Netflix’s God-sent ‘Watch Instantly’ feature, right this very minute… Getting freaked the fuck out has never been so convenient.