Reminiscent of The Wire and Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder in its serpentine inquiry of corrupt institutional structures, and also of Zodiac in its crime-procedural data overload, The Red Riding Trilogy—a trio of films based on The Damned United author David Peace’s quartet of novels, originally broadcast on U.K. television—proves that HBO has no monopoly on quality small-screen drama. All set in the gray, grimy Northern England region of West Yorkshire, and sharing across its tales myriad characters and plot points, Peace’s intertwined books strive to assume James Ellroy’s mantle, with which they share a deep-seated interest in ingrained official and communal rot. And rot there most certainly is throughout this dense triptych, a corrosiveness that’s wormed its way into the fundamental pillars of Yorkshire life (big business, law enforcement, church) as well as into the nuclear family, a unit that, rather than offering shelter from the evils of the outside world, is instead ground zero for social disintegration. Split into three segments, each defined by a year and helmed by a different director (using different cameras), Red Riding ably resuscitates film noir by positioning the genre’s trademark fatalism as a natural outgrowth of a system rigged for injustice, earning its cynicism about the capacity for individual and collective change via a sociological cross-section of bureaucratic and corporate misconduct.
As one might expect from an ambitious genre sprawl like this, majestic peaks exist side-by-side with deep valleys, an unevenness virtually guaranteed by the various creative minds responsible. Yet in totality, the trilogy, penned solely by Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), presents a pervasively grim panorama of mankind gone to seed, its intricate plotting proving seductive while its violence and corruption are posited as ugly, cancerous sores on the body politic. Classic noir’s sexiness and snake-smile joviality may be absent, but, as in Fincher’s Bay Area serial killer opus, the films’ combination of fictionalized and nonfiction details—with notorious real-world cases woven into the fabric of stories made out of whole cloth—creates a sense of drowning in a sea of facts and personalities whose relationships only slowly become clear. With the exception of some disappointingly unsteady final-chapter plot points, Grisoni’s tight scripting weaves its web with arachnid dexterity, creating, in conjunction with an unswervingly bleak portrait of austere urban locales and smokestack-shadowed suburban outposts, an overarching mood of dread gripping enough to outweigh a host of pesky directorial missteps.
Julian Jarrold’s Red Riding: 1974 kickstarts the proceedings by focusing on Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a rookie journalist who, like the protagonists of the subsequent 1980 and 1983, is returning to Yorkshire after time away. Back on native soil mere days after the death of his father, Eddie sees careerist opportunity in the abduction case of 10-year-old Clare Kemplay, a figurative Red Riding Hood (replete with crimson hoodie) whose disappearance he soon surmises may be linked to two similar missing kids in the region. Driven by a strain of young-turk ambition that, as suggested by the environment’s cigarette smoke-decorated nastiness, can only lead to ruin, Eddie makes the cardinal sin of all noir chumps, believing himself to be more (or at least different) than he truly is. It’s a mistake that plays out not only through his investigation into Clare, whose body is suspiciously discovered in a construction site owned by local development magnate John Dawson (Sean Bean) with swan wings stitched to her back, but his eventual amorous relationship with Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), the mother of one of the other missing girls.
Wielding 16mm for maximum grittiness, Jarrold indulges in distracting period detail (primarily clothing and Eddie’s conspicuous shaggy hair and mutton chops) that somewhat undercuts his material’s dead-serious doom and gloom. And likely due to time constraints, Eddie and Paula’s romance never gets enough attention to register as more than an incident convenient for narrative and thematic progress. Yet 1974 sows the early seeds of destruction with deftness, cannily outlining the tangled affiliations between private and public interests while grounding its tale in multifaceted characters and laying hints about ultimate revelations in ragged, unassuming visual compositions. In Eddie’s alluded-to daddy issues can be found Red Riding‘s overriding preoccupation with men attempting to please paternal figures. And in the reporter’s gallantry-cum-self-interest, one first becomes acquainted with the trilogy’s skepticism about the feasibility of heroism, an attitude that haunts Eddie’s probe into Dawson, Paula, the police, a suspect defended by Reverend Martin Laws (Peter Mullan), and a gypsy slum fire, carrying through to a blistering handheld-shot climax that, though reverberating with the force of Taxi Driver‘s finale, leaves a final impression not of triumph but impotence.
Whereas Jarrold favors close-ups that amplify intimacy as well as suggest that the truths Eddie seeks are always out of sight, James Marsh (Man on Wire) employs 35mm for Red Riding: 1980, the better to express the alienation and powerlessness of Peter Hunter (a superb Paddy Considine). Brought in from Manchester to reexamine the (true) case of the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer responsible for 13 female deaths, Hunter is a man alone in a hostile environment, his past duty as lead internal affairs investigator on the first film’s climactic Karachi Club mayhem having made him decidedly unpopular with the cops he now must work alongside. Thrust unceremoniously into the belly of a venal beast, where the dishonest policemen and their shadowy cohorts (including, perhaps, Reverend Laws) from 1974 surround him on every side, Hunter is a lone light destined to be extinguished. Desperate to do the right thing in a milieu that doesn’t prize it, he’s thus fated to realize that not seeing is more prudent than operating with eyes wide open. Marsh masterfully conveys this reality through pinpoint focus shifts, his images plunging into and emerging out of fuzziness in a manner expertly attuned to his protagonist’s circumstances, as when, while visiting the alien suburbs, he stumbles upon and then hastily and hazily retreats from a group of masked kids firing toy guns in his direction.
Whereas the narrative thrust of the first film is somewhat weakened by rushed plotting, 1980 has an assuredness that’s bracing. Though suspenseful, the search for the Ripper is a backseat concern here, with far greater emphasis placed on Hunter, an under-siege lone ranger incapable of trusting those around him and compromised by a regretted affair with colleague Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake) that immediately followed his wife’s unsuccessful pregnancy. Miscarriages of birth and justice commingle, the cancer spreads from society’s head (government, law enforcement) to its heart (the citizenry), and yet Hunter presses forward, his virtuous quest to uncover links between the Ripper and his cop comrades—centered on a murder attributed to the Ripper in order to cover up other unsavory machinations—at once admirable and yet as foolhardy as was Eddie’s. All the while, Marsh’s Scope cinematography, frequently positioning Hunter at the frame’s corner or surrounded by constricting doorways and window frames, silently communicates the second film’s cruel hopelessness, a mood solidified by a final gunshot to the head but truly epitomized by a preceding, heartbreaking revelation of conception and abortion.
Though endowed with the same nuanced performances and minutia-obsessed rigorousness of its antecedents, 1983, after the poise and subtlety of 1980, proves a letdown, its novel contributions to the saga more corny than shrewd. This most directly pertains to the key role played by a medium in director Anand Tucker’s installment, which concentrates on two concurrent threads: John Piggott (Mark Addy), a solicitor returned home to the rural village of Fitzwilliam to bury his mom, agrees to represent the mentally challenged man convicted of the 1974 child abductions, and senior cop Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) slowly undergoes a crisis of conscience while investigating a little girl’s death that closely mirrors the ones from nine years earlier. The psychic in question, first spied in a séance sequence that’s lit (with what appear to be water shadows on the wall) like something out of Body Heat, is no sooner introduced than revealed to be a hoary device designed to aid Jobson’s investigation as well as provide him with carnal calisthenics. A slow-motion sequence of Jobson and his clairvoyant medium searching for a body is particularly egregious, sending the otherwise bleakly realistic action tumbling into hokey melodrama with a force jarring enough to wake the dead.
Tucker’s use of the digital RED camera lends his contribution a sharp hyper-realism defined by a primary flourish—a blue-white light flare that bifurcates the screen—employed so indiscriminately that it does less to visualize Jobson’s inner schisms than to simply add superficial gloss. The film’s intro flashback begins with a skillful opera-scored close-up of the villains’ side-by-side faces that suitably casts them as horsemen of the apocalypse—or, in Sean Harris’s malevolent sneer, as some of the story’s many big bad wolves. Moreover, Tucker’s shrewd manipulation of light and shadow, coupled with his borderline-fantasy imagery, promotes the notion that Red Riding‘s central, systematized bribery, murder, and pedophilia approaches unholy evil, even as it’s consistently depicted as stemming from the squalid urges of rotten humans. It’s a shame, then, that the persistent voiceover ruminations of BJ (Robert Sheehan), a prostitute present throughout the three films, too closely approximate Peace’s otherwise wisely ignored prose experimentations. And that, more dispiriting still, a concluding note of hopefulness not only comes after a divorce from the series’ scrupulously established reality (what, Jobson no longer cares about personal and professional blowback?), but also seems—after a six-hour case study in banal, insidious sin and iniquity—like the false wish-fulfillment of a trilogy that knows better.