Red Riding: 1983
Red Riding: 1983

RED RIDING: 1974 directed by Julian Jarrold

RED RIDING: 1980 directed by James Marsh

RED RIDING: 1983 directed by Anand Tucker

The truth is an elusive quarry in “Red Riding,” an English trilogy of police thrillers set in West Yorkshire between 1974 and 1983. But if this grimly mesmerizing saga—adapted from a series of novels by David Peace, and originally broadcast on British television—has any moment of truth, it arrives in the opening-credits sequence of the second installment, Red Riding: 1980. As stock footage and photographs evoke the real-life nightmare of the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered 13 young women over a five-year period, Bill Molloy, the fictional police commander heading the investigation, makes a televised plea to the killer. “I don’t regard you as evil,” he confesses, staring into the camera as if in a trance. “To me you’re like a bad angel on a mistaken journey. And while I would never condone your methods, I can sympathize with your feelings.”

A gnarled oak of a man (played by veteran character actor Warren Clarke), Molloy has clearly been on the case too long, and his statement of sympathy provokes such an uproar that his superiors decide to replace him. But his words hang over the entire trilogy, which portrays the West Yorkshire force as a cesspool of corruption and misogyny. men are the enemy reads a placard in one of the news photos that’s intercut with Molloy’s broadcast. it could be the man next door, reads another. Indeed, what makes these movies so unnerving is that their evil seems to reach well past the killers and even the West Yorkshire police, into the soul of every man. You’d be hard pressed to find a female character in any of the movies who doesn’t suffer at the hands of men; a vicious hatred of women slithers through the trilogy like a serpent, and even the most well-meaning of men are too flawed to defend them.

That’s certainly the case with Eddie Dunford, the cocky young crime reporter at the center of Red Riding: 1974. A local lad who’s distinguished himself in the London press, Eddie (Andrew Garfield of Boy A) returns in glory to the staid Yorkshire Post just in time to cover the murder of a ten-year-old girl who’s found tortured, raped, and strangled to death with “4LUV’ carved into her flesh and a pair of severed swan wings stitched to her back. Suspecting that the crime is linked to the unsolved disappearances of two other girls in 1969 and 1972—a theory indulged by neither his phlegmatic boss nor the openly hostile Molloy—Eddie begins investigating the earlier cases and winds up on the doorstep of Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall of Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the widowed mother of the girl who vanished two years earlier.

Eddie clearly sees himself as a hero, yet he works his way into Paula’s flat with a lie about how he’s researching a color piece about grieving parents, and his glib questions drive her into a quiet fury. “You come into my house like you’re discussing the weather, or some war in another fucking country,” she tells him. “You know, this thing happened to me.” After she throws Eddie out, he approaches her in a pub to apologize, and they wind up in bed together. Their affair compromises his investigation and threatens her safety, since Paula has another lover as well—a shadowy figure who’s moved in on her since her husband died and whose motives are even more suspect than Eddie’s. “You just want to rescue me!” Paula tells Eddie. “Well, you’re not the first.” Eddie does sincerely want to rescue her, but ultimately she becomes a pawn between the two men, who seem as selfish and controlling in their way as the one who keeps murdering little girls.

Red Riding: 1980 follows more or less the same formula as the first installment: an illicit sexual relationship complicates an investigation of, and provides a disturbing commentary on, a series of grisly crimes against women. This time the central character is Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), a “squeaky clean” commander from the Manchester force who’s brought in to take over the Ripper investigation after Molloy shoots himself in the foot on TV. Hunter is allowed to pick his own team, and he wants only the best—though one of the best, in his opinion, is Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), a Manchester detective with whom he once had an adulterous affair. Hunter’s motives are pure, but the higher-ups insist on at least one Yorkshire man who’s familiar with the previous investigation, and that turns out to be Bob Craven (Sean Harris), a repellent character who antagonizes Marshall with the crudest possible sexual terminology as they review the victims’ autopsy reports.

Of the three movies, the second is the most pointed in showing how deeply the police have internalized the misogyny that motivates the killers. To the Ripper’s list of murder victims it adds a fictional young prostitute who’d been found raped, sodomized, and bludgeoned; there were bite marks on her breasts, and the killer had jumped up and down on her chest. But Hunter begins to suspect that the confessional letter sent to the press by the Ripper is a fake, and that woman was actually murdered by a disgraced former inspector from the West Yorkshire force. The ex-cop, who’d been making his living as a pimp and a publisher of porn magazines, has since been murdered himself, and the detective who investigated the prostitute’s killing is none other than Bob Craven. Given his open contempt for women, his lack of zeal on the case is hardly surprising; when Marshall is late for a meeting, Craven speculates that she’s “on the rag” and cracks, “I do like gravy with my beef.”

The “Red Riding” trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts—and much greater than the busy and unsatisfying Red Riding: 1983. Heavy with flashbacks, this last installment returns to the child killings of the first movie, which have suddenly resumed in 1983 with the disappearance of a fourth little girl. Screenwriter Tony Grisoni, whose scripts for the first two movies are nothing short of masterful, labors to wrap up the series with a steady stream of plot developments and splinters the story line even further by jumping back and forth between two different protagonists. One of them, familiar from the first two movies, is Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a guilt-ridden West Yorkshire cop who’s determined to solve the murders at long last, regardless of what this will mean for the force; the other, a new addition, is John Piggott (Mark Addy), a dissolute attorney who begins to suspect that his late father was involved in the killings.

Amid all this narrative convolution Grisoni loosens his grip on the ugly gender themes that lifted the first two movies above their pulp-fiction material. But there is one story line here that resonates powerfully in the complete trilogy. Piggott is drawn into the murder case by agreeing to represent Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), a mentally disabled man who’s been railroaded for the first three child killings. (He’s based on the real-life Stefan Kiszko, who spent 16 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.) Michael’s mother has never given up believing in her son’s innocence; like the three mothers whose daughters have disappeared, she refuses to abandon hope that her child will return. For his part, Michael claims to know who the real killer is, but when asked to name him, the only answer he’ll give is “the wolf.” In a world where nearly every man is a potential predator, that doesn’t narrow it down much.