I don't know when I've seen a movie as devastating as The Red Riding Trilogy, a three-picture adaptation of four novels by British author David Peace. The three movies – which open Friday at the Starz Denver Film Festival – originally were made for British TV and total five hours in length.
Each of the films has a different director, each was shot in a different format (16 mm, 35 mm and digital video) and each takes place in a different year (1974, 1980 and 1983). All the stories are set in Yorkshire, England's largest county. Each film also involves the notorious Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who was convicted in 1981 after murdering 13 women during a five-year period beginning in 1975.
If all this sounds complex, so be it. The Red Riding Trilogy is one of the densest, most complex movies you'll ever see. On top of that, the thick Yorkshire accents of many of the characters challenge the American ear, and, on occasion, make one long for clarifying subtitles. But if you stick with the three movies, you will, I believe, encounter a masterpiece of darkness, an unremitting chronicle of corruption at every level of society.
Don't let the Yorkshire Ripper connection mislead you. The Red Riding Trilogy is not a whodunit nor does it peer into the twisted mind of a brutal serial killer. It is a portrait of Yorkshire (and, alas, of the human heart) during the course of 10 tumultuous years.
The movie is held together by a mantra recited by various corrupt officials. “This is the North where we do what we want.” Revelations about police corruption, individual intimidation and the hellish nature of ordinary life are hardly shocking -- not anymore. The Trilogy shocks us to the core because of the depth and the extent to which it follows its dark trail of evidence and accusation. The movie makes us feel as if we've caught a disease from which we can't recover, one that's slowly but inevitably fatal.
Throughout the three movies there are overlaps, recurring characters and references to previous events. Eventually, you begin to pick up the movie's rhythms, but you also know that each film represents a kind of dare: Keep up or fall hopelessly behind. Like many films that have plunged into dark, violent waters, The Red Riding Trilogy finds an eerie poetry of the underside, something that elevates pulp into art.
A rude, anti-lyricism anchors much of the dialogue, a disturbing directness that reveals the intentions of the characters, almost all of whom are up to no good. These are not epic villains with larger-than-life ambitions. They're cops you might meet at the local pub. They're also torturers and deviants who are motivated by the most naked forms of greed, men of appetite.
It's probably impossible to summarize the three films properly, but it's worth a fleeting try. The first film, directed by Julian Jarrold and written by Toni Grisoni (who wrote all three movies), centers on a journalist (Andrew Garfield) who's assigned to cover the Ripper murders.
Garfield's Eddie Dunford – a reporter for The Yorkshire Post – is no Bob Woodward. Initially bumbling, ill-informed and over confident, Dunford gradually learns the truth about the cops with whom he deals; he's pulled into a world that seems to revolve around a powerful local businessman (Sean Bean) who wants to build a shopping mall. He also meets the mother (Rebecca Hall) of one of the girls who has disappeared. He falls for her, but don't expect wine and roses.
The hard truth: When people believe they can do what they want and get away with it, a lot of other people will suffer.
So, no, Eddie Dunford is no hero. It falls to Eddie to deliver the film's sour opening line, which defines the worst of journalistic impulses: “Little girl missing. The pack salivates.”
Because the movie is set in 1974, the characters are incessant smokers. The images concocted by cinematographer Rob Hardy have the feel of smoke-clogged rooms that leave you gasping for breath. I haven't smoked in more than 25 years, but watching these characters puff away summoned some sort of residual nicotine memory from deep within my cells, the inescapability of old addictions.
And there are moments of great cinematic prowess. When Eddie decides that his relationship with Paula should go beyond reporter and source, he pauses at her front door. He knocks. She approaches, a hazy figure behind smoked glass. We know in our bones that once she opens that door and Eddie walks through it, nothing ever will be the same for either of them. Of course, the door opens. Of course, Eddie walks through it. The weight of inevitability seems to push Eddie toward his destiny.
Film two, set in 1980, revolves around a cop. Assistant Chief Constable of the Manchester Force Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is sent to Yorkshire to learn why the county's cops have bungled the Ripper investigation. By now, we know that setting foot in Yorkshire is a bit like sinking into quicksand; the more you flail, the worse it gets. But Hunter seems confident, competent and honest. So what if he once had an affair with Helen (Maxine Peake), an investigator he's chosen to work with him on the case? So what if his wife miscarried while he was on duty? We're inclined to trust Hunter with his gloomy sense of calm and face full of disappointment.
Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), the second film seems more stylish than the first, perhaps because it has been shot in 35 mm. But it takes us even deeper into Yorkshire corruption and makes clear the importance of a ferret-faced Yorkshire cop named Bob Craven (Sean Harris). Craven is an adept torturer and merciless rat who may or may not be overestimating the power that his own brutality gives him. He's an unashamed sadist.
In the final film, directed by Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) the undercurrents of the plot begin to rise to the surface, coming into focus as much as a movie like this will allow anything to come into focus. The story now centers on Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a cop with a drooping mustache and a conscience to match. And be sure of this: A conscience is the last thing anyone needs on the Yorkshire police force of this movie. John Piggot (Mark Addy), a lawyer, also looms large in this portion of the story. Piggot hardly epitomizes legal success, but he's likable and has a taste for R&B. Reluctantly, he finds himself pushed in the right direction.
Given five hours of movie, it's neither possible nor desirable to flesh out every detail. The finale of the first movie echoes with the kind of violent retribution that concluded Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The scenes of torture in the basement of a Yorkshire precinct house will make you wince, and there are so many well-drawn minor characters I couldn't keep track of them all: The soft-spoken but creepy Reverend Laws (Peter Mullan); the manipulative male prostitute BJ (Robert Sheehan) or the various Yorkshire police officials who view the world as theirs to plunder.
I've heard it said that these movies can be viewed as stand-alone dramas. See one and leave. I don't think that's true. The Red Riding Trilogy is an all-or-nothing proposition. Whether you see it now or wait to watch it on DVD, see it. As you watch, you'll find yourself making connections and coming to small realizations. A character that you've seen before will crop up, and you'll scurry across the landscape of recent memory, trying to identify his or her position in the drama. Eventually, a cumulative power begins to gather.
The Trilogy offers as complete a vision of a shabby, fallen world as anything I've ever seen. It's one hell of an accomplishment -- a worldview as well as a movie. Abraham Lincoln may seem an odd person to quote at this point, but I'll twist a thought from Lincoln's first inaugural address and say that The Trilogy makes us wonder whether the better angels of our nature haven't grown weary of us and permanently flown the coop.