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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Red Riding: Better than The Godfather?

Some films are so dense that it’s impossible to truly appreciate them while you’re watching them for the first time. The Red Riding trilogy is one of those films. Although, calling it a “trilogy” isn’t really appropriate because although it is three separate films by three separate directors using three very techniques, they are all part of a whole. Some folks have described Red Riding as a six-hour epic British version of David Fincher’s Zodiac. I think that’s an unfair comparison, which caused me to spend a lot of time comparing the two while I was watching it. When compared to Zodiac, almost no crime film comes out looking favorable.

Red Riding is a film about a serial killer, to be sure, but it’s also a film about a town. And more than that, it’s a film about a culture and a class of people. Based on a series of four novels by David Peace, the three films take place at three different years, during two different sets of serial murders and through the eyes of three protagonists. But the real main character and the main subject is the North of England in the late 70s and early 80s, specifically Yorkshire. I’ve never been to the UK and I’ve especially never been there in this time period, but the three different filmmakers all made me taste the tar of the cigarettes, smell the fumes of the local plants and hear the sounds of this place. This is dreary subject matter that takes place in a gloomy part of the world at a depressed time. In other words, this is the type of film that is right up my alley.

First we are presented with novice journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) in 1974, the installment directed by Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots, Brideshead Revisited). Dunford is idealistic and passionate, desperate to break the latest story and willing to bend the rules in order to find out clues. Dunford fancies himself as a tough-guy private eye, but everyone around him sees him as a weakling that can be bossed around and frightened. But he’s recently moved back home after spending some time in the South and there is a twinge of condescension in his voice, like he thinks he’s better than most of the blue collar toughs he lives and works with. So, Dunford hasn’t exactly ingratiated himself with the local populace, but when investigates the disappearances and murders of several young girls, Dunford winds up suspecting some pretty powerful people. He also starts an affair with the mother of one of the missing children (Rebecca Hall).

1974 is a film that has gotten a lot of rave reviews and it’s got a lot of great material presented in an economical way that isn’t confusing at all. But it’s also a lot of set-up for what will follow in the next two films and although it has an ending that is intense and shocking, it feels a bit contrived as well. Garfield is excellent in the lead role as someone who believes he’s a big shot and is brought back down to earth in a very tragic way. He’s aided by terrific supporting performances from Sean Bean as the real estate developer, who is the most powerful man in town and Rebecca Hall as the mother who clearly misses her child, but seems to be withholding information that might be helpful. Then there are actors like David Morrissey as Maurice Jobson, Peter Mullan as Reverend Martin Laws and Robert Sheehan as the rent-boy BJ, who have arcs that only just begin with this story and continue through all three films.

1974 was the film that, for me, suffered most from the Zodiac comparisons. While it does have a similarly tight grasp of the atmosphere of the time, it just doesn’t have the same quality of construction or control of pacing as the Fincher film. The pacing is a big issue because Jarrold’s film seems to have starts and stops along the way while Fincher’s is able to follow a straight line and slowly build the tension. In this film, the tension is there for some scenes and lost for others. Perhaps this is due to having a smaller budget – it was made for British television after all – but I think mostly it’s just not an apt comparison. Despite them both being about famous serial murderers and taking places in the 70s, the films have nothing in common in terms of what they are trying to do.

Fincher’s film is a character study about obsession and a finely-tuned reconstruction of what it meant to be around in this time and place. The Red Riding films are also about a particular time and place, but while it dwells in the depressing, it doesn’t live there like Fincher’s film does. More than that, the message is much different; Fincher’s film seems to say, “there are no answers in life, only more questions,” while the Red Riding films say, “there are answers if you make it through the obstacles put in your way and you remain dogged in your pursuit.” And those themes definitely color the respective films.

1980, the film by James Marsh (Man on Wire) is when the story really begins to pick up steam. The Yorkshire Ripper is in the news, but so is corruption within the Yorkshire police department. An independent investigator from the South is brought in to find out why the earlier murders were never solved and to clean up the corruption. The man who is brought in, Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), is a straight arrow, someone who is trustworthy and has had a previous run-in with the West Yorkshire police department before. But the interference is heavy and there are threats on Hunter’s life, even as he inches closes towards a conclusion.
1980 is certainly more concise in its aims and more efficient than the previous installment. Considine is perfect, as usual, in the lead role, someone who picks up where Dunford left off, but with more masculinity and less bravado. More information, that would be awful to spoil, starts to come to the fore. We begin to see how the pieces are starting to come together, but then it becomes muddy again at the end of the film, setting up 1983 with the heavy burden of tying up loose ends.

Our hero in 1983 is cut from a different cloth. The other two were a journalist and a policeman who have passion for what they do and are desperate to find answers. In 1983, we have an overweight and uninspired lawyer fittingly named John Piggott (Mark Addy). But concurrently, we also have a remorseful police officer that has been with us since the first film, Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), who has a lot of doubts about what he has done. This film, directed by Anand Tucker (Shopgirl, Hilary and Jackie), has been called the weakest of the lot. I disagree, I think it’s the strongest and it helps to make the previous two films even better in retrospect.

By the time 1983 has started, everything seems terrible and it seems like nothing good will ever happen. But this is a film about redemption for three characters and retribution for one. In reality, though, this is a film about how a culture moves forward; by putting its past demons to rest. To say anything more would be to spoil it, so all I will say is that it’s important to stick through all three films. To make a musical reference, it’s a bit like sitting through The Streetsalbum, A Grand Don’t Come For Free; it takes a while to sit through, but if you listen intently, you will be rewarded.

I must say, however, that I wasn’t that appreciative of the films as a whole right after watching them. It was something that I slogged through because I was told I needed to and becauseDavid Thomson said that Red Riding was better than The Godfather. These comparisons hurt the film because it could not possibly live up to that billing. But the more time I’ve had to think about it, to let the films marinate in my brain, the more I realize how masterful they are. And a large chunk of credit must be given to the screenwriter, Tony Grisoni, for putting the pieces of the puzzle together in such an original way. There is an awful lot of information, a ton of characters and difficult language, but Grisoni knows where to put that information for maximum impact. It’s truly one of the best adaptations you’ll ever see.
I’m not quite ready to put this film in the pantheon of the greats and I don’t think I ever will be. But what Red Riding is, is better than most films. It’s the one must-see movie event of the first two months of this year. Sure, that’s not saying it’s the greatest film of all-time, but it’s pretty high praise indeed. It’s the best thing I’ve seen so far in 2010.

Noah Forrest
February 8, 2010

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon