This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974, directed by Jullian Jerold.
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (directed by Jullian Jerold, 2009)
This is first in the Red Riding trilogy, which originally appeared on British television. Watching the film is like getting caught in a super slow-motion bear trap. You know it’s going to happen, you can see it happening, you can feel it happening, and yet for some reason you do nothing to stop it. Like the young newspaper reporter protagonist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), you feel the trap closing around you, and yet still some part of you wants to know the Secret so badly that you don’t run when you have the chance.
Investigating a series of murders of little girls in Yorkshire, Eddie meets with his friend and fellow reporter Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan) at a bar/poolhall/strip joint. Barry is all nervous paranoia to Eddie’s youthful cockiness. The accents are thick, and I’ve used brackets to indicate where I can’t quite make out the words:
Barry: There are death squads out there. They give ‘em a [test/taste] and bring ‘em back home.
Eddie: Fuck off! Death squads!
Barry: Every city has its death squads. [Census?] first, evidence after.
Eddie: Alright well I’ll steer right clear away from [___] Council death squad then.
Barry: And you can laugh . . .
Eddie: I will. Why not work Watergate in there too while you’re about it? Death squads? Barry—come on. You’re losing it mate.
The shot is ominously drenched in red, like something out of one of the great bar scenes in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Shot on Super 16 mm film, this first installment of Red Riding not only evokes the 70s, but actually feels like that’s when the film was made. The 20-minute frame captures the soft, pre-digital softness of the best 70s films, like Chinatown. It’s as if, in this scene, we are watching a memory, or the glimpsed dialog from a dream. That’s blood behind Barry’s head, as he’s talking about death squads, isn’t it? Isn’t he tainted with the hue of death already? Don’t his eyes show the fear of a man who knows he knows too much? And what price will Eddie pay for laughing off Barry’s warnings?
Having learned that Barry has been killed in an unusual accident that resulted in the top of his head being sliced off, Eddie visits the scene of the accident, and talks to a local bobby, who seems sympathetic, yet also menacing in a way that’s hard to pinpoint. He is very, very, very sincere. Too sincere and sympathetic? He seems like a man pretending to pretend he is sincere. He keeps looking down and the shattered glass and blood, as if to say to Eddie, see there? That’s where your mate died. He’s just blood, now. Pity. In the background, Eddie’s car is positioned like a warning sign, the driver’s door open, the blinker going, the buildings and the spaces between them, the gray sky. “This nation’s in fuckin’ chaos,” a Terrible Man will tell Eddie later.
A person with a problem. This is Eddie, now. His friend has died. There is a problem that has to do with chaos, and the terrible blank spaces it exposes. To its credit, Red Riding: 1974 does not offer the familiar suggestion that the investigator and the serial killer are one in the same, two opposite ends of the same soul. There are no face it, you’re just like me lines in the film. Eddie is not a bad man. He is a good man. And because he is good, he is doomed. That is the tragic fact the film cracks open. It does not take chaos for men to do evil, but chaos gives them a context to understand and justify their evil. In this frame, Eddie realizes that the game is already lost. He soldiers on, but to what end? The problem for Eddie is not that there are not enough clues, but that there are too many clues.
Eddie has slept with the mother—Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall)—of one of the murdered girls. He wakes up; she’s gone. He goes outside and sees her walking in the distance. He follows her as she goes to the home of the Terrible Man. The light in the distance some sort of menace like the car’s blinker. Eddie crosses the deep green-gray frame. Who would miss him if he disappeared? He is in the north of England, sunless. He has been warned already. In this shot, he strides forth with the confidence of youth and idealism. Why, we ask, does he have to stride with such blind determination into his doom when there are so many signs warning him to stop? In this frame, he is alone in a barren landscape, an easy target for what Barry called the death squads.
The image is super-loaded with associations and meanings. Its tendrils reach out in night-growth to remind you of something. But what? Perhaps it reminds you of your own erratic steps toward Revelation, or these lines from the poem “White Pilgrim: Old Christian Cemetery” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly:
Many dreams come true. But mostly it isn’t
The good ones. That night in December
The boys were bored. They were pained to the teeth
With boredom. You can hardly blame them.
They had been out all night breaking trashcans
And mailboxes with their baseball bats. They
Hang from their pickups by the knees and
Pound the boxes as they drive by. The ground
Here is unhealthy, but that is not it.
Their satisfaction just ends too quickly.
They need something better to break. They
Need something holy. But there is not much left
Murder was more beautiful in the 1970s. The decade seemed to call out for murder, and for its portrayal in the gorgeous, wide-screen paranoid dreams of that era’s cinema. By 1974, the social idealism of the 1960s had been over-corrected, and before long the emergence of the blockbuster (Jaws, 1975) signaled the end of a certain type of film. Red Riding: 1974 is less about murder than about the atmosphere and style and romance and seduction of murder. Because it forever stays off screen in the film, there is endless talk about murder, but no showing of it.
The movie opens with a bloodied Eddie holding a gun, and ends with him driving into some mad termination as shattering as the ending to David Lynch’s Lost Highway. In between, Paula seems to love and dream of Eddie. Eddie dreams of Paula’s dead body with white swan wings sewn into her naked back. And we, meanwhile, dream of the 1970s.
For 50 consecutive frames of this movie, go here.