If you've ever been to a film festival, you know the age-old dilemma: do I opt for early sneaks of high-profile releases that will roll out all over the country in a few months, or do I try to catch the obscurities that I may never see again? For me, this choice is frequently dictated by reviewing obligations, but even when it is not, I tend to opt for the former, as I am both impatient and -- sadly -- skeptical of the unfamiliar. I don't know what happened to me at Telluride this year, but for some reason I decided to commit to a trilogy of films made for British television at the expense of several higher-profile options that I will now have to see when they hit theaters later this fall.
Let this be a lesson to you. Red Riding -- the trilogy to which I'm referring -- is, collectively, the greatest thing I've seen since I discovered the first season of Twin Peaks on DVD. Granted, featuring actors like Peter Mullan, Andrew Garfield, David Morrissey, Paddy Considine and Mark Addy, and directed by name-brand filmmakers Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker, this isn't some ultra-independent obscurity. But man, am I grateful for the Telluride powers-that-be for bringing it here, and for whatever possessed me to check out the first one on Saturday morning.
Red Riding is film noir, and by that I mean it's actual film noir, not film noir in the loosey-goosey sense in which that term is now used to describe all halfway gloomy crime fiction. Based on a series of novels by David Peace, this is Ellroy and Chandler and Hammett, except even darker, if you can believe it, almost impossibly bleak and grim and -- until the very end -- hopeless. (The notion that this aired on public television seems ridiculous, but I guess they do things differently across the pond.) The first film, 1974 (the others are 1980 and 1983), is especially prototypical, with an incorruptible lone wolf hero -- a sleuthing young journalist played by Andrew Garfield -- up against the entire cold, murderous world filled with child killers and rotten cops. The setting is Yorkshire, UK, a rather picturesque expanse of working-class communities scattered across rolling hills, which, in the best noir tradition, appears here as a sunless, despairing purgatory. Investigating the brutal murder and mutilation of a little girl, Garfield's intrepid reporter starts to uncover a mind-bogglingly thick web of corruption in the highest levels of law enforcement, government and community. What are they covering up?
The story -- which writhes and twists and turns through the latter two installments, each of which has its own style and personality -- is deep and complicated, with bone-chilling Lynchian overtones (the Twin Peaks comparison was not arbitrary). The films are unpleasant in an ambient, enveloping way: watching them made me feel cold -- physically cold -- and also scared. But like the best noir, they are profoundly human, too. Things mostly do not end well here for the folks who dare to stand for good against evil (each of the three movies has a different hero), but it's their struggle -- which seems hopeless, pointless, verging on quixotic -- that's at the heart of these films (and the genre). Given the choice of escaping somewhere with sunshine and love and a chance at happiness, the noir protagonist plunges into darkness.
IFC Films has the rights to the series, and reportedly plans to release it in theaters and on demand this fall. You need not watch the three in one sitting, but they should probably be seen within a few days of each other, if only to keep the plot straight. (Each entry does stand on its own as a crime thriller -- the third one less so than the first two -- but watching the three in order is crucial to grasping the whole breadth of the story.) They will transport you, and knock you on your ass, and make you cry.