The source material for the Red Riding Trilogy, originally made for British TV, is a quartet of novels by English author David Peace, a native of Yorkshire who now lives in Tokyo. The books could be considered Peace’s extended poison-pen letter to his home town, as they form a singularly harsh, bleak portrait of Yorkshire in the 1970s and early ‘80s, as the area reels from a series of child kidnappings and the serial killing of prostitutes, crimes that the infamously corrupt local police force seems helpless to stop. Or worse, unwilling to stop.
Red Riding 1974 (2009)
England in 1974 is fertile territory for any dramatist, and in many ways the vivid period setting of Red Riding 1974, the trilogy’s opener, is the most attention-getting aspect of the film. Set in the semi-rural north, a sense of social decline is inescapable in 1974 — everything in this world is grimy, busted, run-down. These are not the fun, disco–dance party 1970s. In keeping with an era of brutally diminished expectations, director Julian Jarrold shoots this world as if the light itself was poisoned.
Streamlining David Peace’s novel into a taut script by Tony Grisoni (taut, albeit perhaps overly fond of elliptical storytelling), Red Riding 1974 follows Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a novice crime reporter and young hot shot, in his own mind, at least, who starts covering the disappearance of a local girl and quickly susses out that this case might be linked to several others where girls went missing over the past five years. Only, to Eddie’s consternation, no one wants to hear it. Not his gruff, torpid editor, and certainly not anyone from the police, who are openly contemptuous of Eddie.
Red Riding 1974 succumbs to the TV-drama cliché of shoehorning a frantic sex scene into the first 10 minutes. But the story becomes engrossing as we learn just how harsh this milieu is. As the cocky, callow Eddie, Andrew Garfield makes it uncomfortably clear just how much the character is like a gawky teenager playing at being a man. We begin to intuit that Eddie is overmatched early on, and in true noir fashion a sense of gathering doom soon hangs over the storyline.
Eddie drives to a boondocks town to look up Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), the mother of one of the little girls who went missing previously — and whose husband subsequently killed himself. Rebecca Hall is excellent as the cut-rate femme fatale Paula, taking what could be a dubious conceit of a character (“I fook anything in trousers”) and making her need feel all too raw and believable. The world of Red Riding feels more real, not to mention bearable, whenever Paula is on screen.
Eddie also makes the acquaintance of John Dawson (Sean Bean), a hugely successful, blithely arrogant real-estate developer. Dawson strides around in tight, flamboyant clothes that announce he’s still living the ‘60s party while everyone else suffers the long, long ‘70s hangover. Sean Bean has charisma and screen presence to spare, but the problem with his role here is that Dawson is a transparent heavy, a stock Mr. Big figure no matter how much actorly gravitas Bean brings to the part.
In the final third of Red Riding 1974, the ominous atmosphere gives way to a full-blown nightmare. As disaster closes in, director Jarrold piles on effects and tricky editing to build up a mood of all-encompassing dread, pushing a brutal crime story to the edge of the supernatural.
The intensity is a mixed blessing: Many moments of 1974 push way past realism toward something more like a disturbing fever dream, but often the imagery, so full of pointedly off-centered compositions and pulsating color, struck me as self-consciously arty, vaguely fashionable even, and never quite original. The movie draws heavily from the Twin Peaks stylistic playbook, and the closing moments recall Lost Highway, an even darker David Lynch work.
But my doubts about Jarrold’s abilities as a director were blown away by the climax, a scene of vigilante violence — from a character we would’ve never thought capable of it — that’s so jarring that it was only afterward that I started to think about how effectively staged it was. Finally we get the release of all the accumulated tension, but the moment is so unsettling that we don’t experience any trite or easy satisfaction. The violence plays less like an act of heroic self-assertion than a gesture of pure despair. The story has careened into nihilism, and there’s no hope of a happy ending for anyone.
The plot points of Red Riding 1974 might not be subtle, or entirely plausible, when considered in the light of day. My second thoughts are neatly summed up by a Netflix member who posted that the villain of Red Riding 1974 could have stepped out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon; I can’t disagree. But when I think back to what it was like to watch the film late at night, there’s no denying it was an experience. Whatever my doubts afterward, the movie came across as a grimly satisfying vision. As noir as it gets.