There’s a much quoted line from David Fincher’s Seven, found in one of many notebooks scribbled by horrific serial killer John Doe, that reads: “Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light”. The sentiment and association is very appropriate when musing on the visceral sledgehammer assault on emotions, morality and senses represented by David Peace’s Red Riding series, a sprawling nine year epic of neo-noir, adult fear and a simmering stew of all forms of human evil. Brought to the screen in the form of a condensed movie trilogy (the second novel, 1977, is sacrificed) by the hand of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas writer Tony Grisoni, adaptation does not spell compromise on style or content. Like Seven, this is a mercilessly dark and mesmeric slice of misanthrope story telling, one that hypnotizes as much as it horrifies; that road out of hell is indeed a long one.
Set in a miserable and desolate visage of Northern England’s West Yorkshire Riding, and featuring a veritable who’s who of British acting talent, Red Riding sets about slowly unraveling the web of deceit, corruption and criminal silence maintained by local police and upstanding figures of society, all successfully masked behind more eye catching events elsewhere. Each year produces an erstwhile protagonist to uncover a part of the mystery. In 1974, Andrew Garfield’s Eddie Dunford returns to his home town from London and marks the start of his tenure as a local journalist by looking into a series of grisly child murders, featuring the notable signature of swan wings stitched to the victims’ back. The aftermath of this crusade leads on to 1980, with Paddy Considine’s squeaky clean detective drafted in to lead the hunt for real life serial killer The Yorkshire Ripper and discovering that one of the monster’s victims perhaps holds the key to a very different case. Ending it all in 1983, responsibilities are split three ways between a conspiracy survivor (Robert Sheehan), a conspiracy passenger (David Morrissey) and a conspiracy theorist (Mark Addy) as the men behind the curtain are finally unveiled for what they truly are.
Acting as an interlocking puzzle box, one that requires three attempts to fully solve, the trilogy forms a single cohesive narrative while enjoying a visually pronounced changing of times to reflect the nine year life span. 1974 is dirtier and muddier in its cinematography, shot in 16mm by Julian Jarrold and making apposite use of symbolism to push home the hidden meaning within what is, while standing alone, a rather simple hero’s journey. It is deliberately reminiscent of 70’s crime thrillers, with a back catalogue of sinister supporting characters and the permanent peril presented by the local corrupt cops. It is here in particular that we are treated to the double meaning of the title, both a reference to the location and a nightmarish spin on the Red Riding Hood story. While a dark and disturbing mystery, 1974 also acts as a mourning of a relative dark age felt by a region high on poverty and general misery. Yorkshire is a character as much as the people who inhabit it, felt not just within the thick accents and gloomy culture.
This is perhaps felt more strongly in the following installment, which opens with an extraordinary fusion of fact and fiction as the already battered ridings were pitched into a darker mood of fear, distrust and societal collapse. The Yorkshire Ripper evades capture with ease from the corrupt local law enforcement, who are quickly identified as an enemy by the increasingly gnarled populace. This comes to a head when Warren Clarke’s overworked and overstressed Assistant Chief Constable Bill Molloy makes a hideously misjudged TV plea to the killer, describing him as a “bad angel on a mistaken journey”. The resultant maelstrom of PR brings in Considine’s Peter Hunter, in turn bringing about the next stage of the puzzle. The story boils down to the use of the Ripper’s murders to cover up a crime connected to the man embroiled in a scheme that became compromised in an unforeseen activity that required further bloodshed to hide. It’s that kind of thick plot burner. In the background, however, is the mirroring of characters and dark forces. The Ripper isn’t the only one killing with impunity. 1974’s climax provoked further evil. For one dead bad guy, read others saved from exposure by a manipulated sacrifice. James Marsh takes over and truly nails his episode down as noir, right down to the dark locales, slow beats and mysterious visitors to the narrative providing small clues to push Hunter in the right direction…further cover up. The inevitably harrowing climax leads viewers to the sense that they are on the verge of seeing the full picture, but knowing it will not be illumination, simply more despair.
Breaking from the conventions utilized by its predecessors, 1983 is the most fascinating in terms of both style and structure. Clearly tapping into the tone of revelation and closure, Anand Tucker’s image becomes cleaner and more sterile and light finally seeps into the frame. After the brown of 1974 and the black of 1980, the finale is bathed in white from start to finish, with even torture rooms feeling the glow of sunlight. It is perfectly appropriate, since this marks the end for both the story, the great lie and the conspiracy men who created it. David Morrissey’s Owl-like Maurice Jobson finally picks a side after years of feeling the heartbreak of reluctant participation. Sheehan’s BJ, troubled and tortured youth serving as an enigmatic witness in the last two films, swears to put paid to his misery by enacting justice on the true monster behind the lies and loss. Addy’s John Piggott, humored attorney accused of riding on the coat tails of his late father’s legacy, is the final nail in the coffin (and the final noir truth seeking archetype) as his search for answers after the suspicious death of a client while in police custody reveals more than he ever wanted to know. It all comes down to a heartbreaking final scene as the trio work together to slay the wolf, then rescue the little girl lost…the first victim to be spared a horrific fate. By the time it finally comes, that light is almost blinding. Red Riding Hood finally has something approaching its traditional ending.
In terms of stylistic direction, pitch black-hearted scripting and rich acting, Red Riding is an absolute tour de force from start to finish, a masterful creative vision and fitting framing of Peace’s unforgettable saga. The set tapestry of his and Grisoni’s treatment is woven by three directors perfectly attuned to the need for contrast and change, like a caterpillar’s metamorphosis. The color, the sharpness of image and the composition of the score alters each time while the myriad cast of characters and sharpness of story does not. As well as the aforementioned main characters of the fable, we also have sharp turns from Sean Bean, Sean Harris, Rebecca Hall, Jim Carter, Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan. The slow burn of the overall arc means that a player may appear as one thing only to rear up years later as something else entirely. An insignificant young witness is brought in from the cold two films later to play a huge part in the endgame. All of the pieces required to solve the puzzle are present from the very start, but at the time don’t seem telling; we thought it was far simpler at the end of 1974. 1980 and 1983 prove that no, we didn’t know the half of it. The first film’s vengeful finale merely distracted, it didn’t reveal. It didn’t solve. Technically, as a story and as visual art, the trilogy is near enough faultless.
This doesn’t even take into account what it is going on just below the surface, away from the plotting and the mysteriousness. Like Seven, Red Riding is a tale that acts as a troubling and cynical statement, a suggestion that makes liberal use of fairytale reference and big bad wolf deconstruction to make a number of points. Human weakness is a key matter, one that materializes in the form of John Dawson, Reverend Laws and Maurice Jobson, and speaks of the danger found in unsuitable men thrust into positions of authority. There is also the death of innocence felt in a community already pillaged and raped by economics, with the debauchery and evil manifesting within the moors and sullen villages of Yorkshire perhaps just highlighting damage already done. It is no coincidence that the murders and torture takes place in a land depicted as a medieval crapsack. The Hades-like approach to Fitzwilliam, the desolation of a burned and gutted Romani camp, the lifelessness of the locale in general. Hopelessness pervades even those untouched by the pedophile ring and complicit iron fist of the constabulary.
Then, of course, there is the feeling of betrayal that comes with the realization that we never truly know the people around us. Peter Hunter is allowed to play out a fruitless game of cat and mouse in search of the truth, blissfully unaware that he is firmly located in the camp of the enemy. Piggott’s integrity and conviction merely leads him to find that not only was his father not the man he thought he was, he wasn’t a man at all, just another monster. Reverend Laws, perhaps the ultimate evil, is present from the first day of the first year and yet we do not see him for what he is until nine annals later. 1983 brings about the brilliant reveal that the West Yorkshire Police, previously the biggest antagonist, blundered on to the scene, and the realization, of more despicable acts committed by their allies in tryst. In a state of shock they were forced to make it their own sin, all in the interest of self-preservation. Imagine if Red Riding Hood presented the twist that the village folk were engaged in a land development scheme with the wolf. It’s that kind of faux-modern take.
Make no mistake, Red Riding is brutal, it is dark and it is unforgiving. Not simply accounting for the violence (the harshest example of this comes in a 1980 tape recording) and the unseen crimes committed, there is an all pervading mood that seeps into your emotional core, overwhelming not just in its gloom but in its doom. It takes a long time to reach that light at the end of the tunnel, the end of it all, and there is much suffering to be had in watching the bad guys win at every turn regardless of what the heroes do. When it finally comes, it is diluted by the sense that it is too late, that too many have been lost already for such a victory to be all-embracing. The ending isn’t so much redemption as it is salvage. But it is unforgettable, and it does sneak into you. It is haunting, powerful and searing for sure. It jumps from the page and into the darkest recesses of your mind, reminding you that such dark storytelling is often the best. Being in hell makes you appreciate the light all the more, after all.