by Tony Dayoub
Red Riding: 1974 only seems like a bracing return to the dark British crime thrillers of the seventies like Mike Hodges' Get Carter (1971), or the serial killer genre explored in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). A more accurate touchstone would probably be such disparate films as Straw Dogs (1971) or The Conversation (1974). From the former, it derives the outsider's perspective when obstructed by small-town provincial attitudes. From the latter, it borrows the sinking feeling of a protagonist so forcefully assailed by corrupt forces he may end up stained—or worse—from the experience.
Director Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited) sets the trilogy in impressive motion with a murkily-lit look at a series of murders involving young girls in Northern England. The perspective on the case belongs to Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a cocky reporter who strides onto the relatively close-minded Yorkshire scene with little regard for the locals. A southerner, Eddie never quite meshes with his fellow reporters, the local constabulary, or even the families of the victims or witnesses involved in the case. The one person Eddie does seem to have most in common with is the slimy sophisticate, John Dawson (Sean Bean), a millionaire who pays off the local police force to keep his empty lot free of gypsy settlers as he prepares to start construction on a mall.
Eddie and John's tenuous link is their remove from the backwater environs with its unrefined denizens. That and Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), a mother of one of the victims who is sleeping with each of them. Like Dustin Hoffman's David Sumner in Straw Dogs, Eddie is overconfident, believing he's got the Yorkshire folks all figured out, or even that he's one step ahead of them. But like Sumner, he is out of his element when facing the local bullies, in this case crooked cops like Bob Craven (Sean Harris), a bully who always proves most threatening when attacking Eddie's masculinity. The primary difference between him and John is the builder's willingness to play by the rules of this berg, a place where he doesn't belong any more than Eddie does.
On this level, the film is evocative of the seventies conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation. Eddie Dunford navigates through the filthy intricacies of the serial murder case, slowly finding connections to the cops, their benefactor John Dawson, and even his own newspaper. Like Gene Hackman's Harry Caul, Eddie believes his integrity gives him a slight edge over all of those he encounters, a professional distance if you will, one which he thinks will protect him against the depravity all around him. He blows off John's attempts to buy him off because he is self-assured in his notion that he is uncorruptible. It is only when John callously sics the dirty cops on Paula that Eddie realizes how mired he is in the wrong side of Yorkshire's demoralizing microcosm.
In look and feel, Red Riding: 1974 resembles another recent period film which examines a serial killer through the eyes of a reporter. That would be Fincher's Zodiac (2007). And though it quite doesn't achieve that film's multi-leveled complexity, it does make for an interesting first chapter in what could be classified as a time-lapse look at a small city oppressed by its own sinfulness. Those expecting a typical serial killer exercise may be pleasantly surprised. Red Riding: 1974's lurid serial killings are only a hook to draw viewers into its penetrating exploration of into the nature of venality.
Red Riding: 1974 is playing as part of the Red Riding: Special Roadshow Edition, today through February 11th exclusively at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street, New York, NY 10014, (212) 924-7771
It will also play February 12 - 14th and February 18th, at Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Los Angeles, CA 90025,
It opens in select theaters nationwide on February 19th.
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