England’s Channel 4 imagines the north of England as an apocalyptic wasteland in this trio of films revolving around the 1970s economic recession and the murder spree of Peter Sutcliffe, aka the Yorkshire Ripper, who told authorities upon his arrest that he was “just taking out the trash”. A few decent souls, or rather, a few men trying very hard to be good (Andrew Garfield, Paddy Considine, Mark Addey), slog their way through a decade-long thicket of corruption, cronyism and downright demonic indifference to get at the truth.
It’s mostly horrifying, despairing, and deadly, but it’s a journey the British are exceptionally good at telling. The ripper himself is a peripheral character, gnawing at the edges of a very human story about missing children, broken families, and the society that fails to give much of a shit about them. The ripper is a metaphor for ambivalence in that he is hardly the worst person to appear on screen (that’s right, the serial killer is a pansy compared to the real big bads). The Red Riding Trilogy is hard to watch, but doing so will make you a better person.
“My name is Peter and I kill prostitutes.”
Cast in noir tones and plot contrivances that are frankly too complicated to write about, much less understand, the Red Riding Trilogy is really no more than a simple allegory about how we fail to be humane to one another when the chips are down. Greedy, evil men plow their way through the fabric of society simply because they can.
The story starts in 1974. A little girl named Claire has gone missing. Her body is later found at a construction site. Someone has stitched the wings of a swan onto her shoulder blades. Somehow, this macabre fact is greeted with little more than a shrug by local authorities. Intrepid cub reporter Eddie (Garfield) is determined to get at the truth while also doing what any handsome young college graduate might do: chase girls. Some of those girls happen to be dead and Eddie eventually finds himself knee deep in a conspiracy deeper than Eyes Wide Shut.
“What do you mean I can’t defeat evil with handsome?”
Like every good character in this story, he only gets at part of the truth, and is eventually destroyed for what little evidence he does uncover about how deep the evil actually goes (hint: all the way down). He is a babe in a land of wolves, convinced that the justness of his cause will save him. It doesn’t. The powerful (greasily portrayed by such greats as Sean Bean, David Morrissey, and Peter Mullan) squash him and move on to devour the next would-be do-gooder.
“This turtleneck is actually quite appropriate considering what happens to me on Game of Thrones.”
Flash forward to 1980, Paddy Considine plays a police inspector named Peter Hunter, brought in by the brass to investigate an investigation (and the snake eats itself). He, like Eddie is also a good man whose moral failings are small compared to those of the people he’s up against. Like Eddie, he finds himself in over his head, trying to connect the dots between the ripper, the dead girl, and some shady real estate deals. He too drowns in the very real shit that swirls around in the darkest days of post-industrial England.
Finally, we arrive in 1983. A nerd sort of saves the day. His name, unfortunately, is Piggot, and he is a fat lawyer played by Mark Addey who gets by on the strength of never being noticed. Piggot somehow manages to cut through multiple layers of police corruption, graft, and downright awfulness that have obscured the investigations of the dead girl, the ripper, and frankly everything in between. Somehow, all the horror seems worth it simply because we are allowed to see a good man do something rather than nothing. It is Piggot, working in the shadow of Eddie and Peter who are…
Who finally pulls the right string to unravel the whole stinking mess of winking and nudging, sex and death, that have lead to so much heartbreak. It’s a small measure of relief, but a welcome one. We cannot undo the sins of the past, but we can damn sure not make them worse. The trash gets taken out.
Half a Beer
This is a trilogy, directed by three different helmers (Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker) and as such there is a wild divergence in tone and visual style across the whole. It doesn’t quite hang together as well as it could had it been overseen by a single visionary. The first installment, 1974, is by far the best, mixing a solid detective story with a creeping sense of dread. There’s also the matter of accents. This isn’t a criticism, but if you’re an American who speaks American English without marbles in your mouth, it’s best to turn the subtitles on. The plot is hard enough to follow without having to wonder if the characters are actually speaking Spanish.
“Blarrgghhhhle! The Queen’s English! Que?”
The Red Riding Trilogy is a dark morality play that doesn’t pussyfoot around the gray areas. It’s depressing as Hell most of the time. For close to six hours the audience has to wade through a bog of insanity worthy of Caligula and the pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel is cold comfort indeed. But, like many a great endeavor, that light reveals a great deal about our own inability to look into the moral void without it looking into us. This is an important set of works.
P.S. If you can read the David Peace quadrilogy on which the films are based without throwing up, you are much smarter and braver than I am.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time a protagonist has awkward, soul-destroying sex
Take a Drink: every time a motown song plays in the background
Take a Drink: whenever someone says something disparaging about gypsies (which is a lot of the time, so have some water too)