There's a bleak ferocity that runs through the "Red Riding" trilogy of films playing at the Detroit Film Theatre this weekend and next, a mean storm of corruption, menace and crushed dreams that leaves the air bitter and sad.
This is not Jolly Olde England. This is the depressed Yorkshire countryside, where two serial killers haunt locals over a decade, and the police are so corrupt they'll trade murder for a stake in a shopping mall.
The DFT is presenting the three "Red Riding" films -- all released in 2009 -- as one mammoth crime epic, and it should be as exhausting as it is all-consuming. The three films each take place in a different time period -- 1974, 1980 and 1983 -- and are based on David Peace's novels of the same name, adapted for the screen by Tony Grisoni.
The first film follows the hunt for a serial killer who is murdering children and pinning swan feathers to their corpses. Directed by Julian Jarrold ("Kinky Boots," "Becoming Jane") it, like the other two films, doesn't really concentrate on the crimes but those caught up in the hunt.
The chief characters are Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), the young crime reporter who initially ties the deaths together, and Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall, in the outstanding performance of the three films) as the aching, beautiful and damaged mother of one of the victims.
In the second film, directed by James Marsh ("Man on Wire"), the children's murders are long forgotten, but many of the monstrous cops from the first film are still around as an outside detective (Paddy Considine) is brought in to figure out why the Yorkshire authorities are having such a tough time catching another serial killer, this one murdering young women.
By the time the series reaches 1983, when director Anand Tucker ("Shopgirl") takes over, the child killer has surfaced again. And again the film loops around the actual killings, following a down-and-out attorney (Mark Addy) trying to appeal the sentence of the mental cripple who was framed for the previous killings.
If there's a center to the three films, it's Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), the one Yorkshire cop who develops something like a conscience over the years. The question is whether a conscience is worth anything.
The "Red Riding" films all come across as great, gritty tales of police corruption and human failing, but it's the first film that has the most impact, mainly because the young reporter Dunford is such a mix of romantic notions -- he's going to solve the crime and save the girl. Such optimism runs dead against reality in these films.
Mix the best episodes of the superb British crime series "Prime Suspect" with the current real-feel cinema ("Fish Tank") coming out of England and you've got a sense of what "Red Riding" is about. The key isn't the murders; the key is the reactions to the murders on a breadth of levels, and those reactions lay bare gray and grave souls.
Each film works well separately, although 1983 is necessarily dependent on 1974, but taken as one great sweep of a dark hand, "Red Riding" stands as a wrenching tale of power abused and lives discarded. It is powerful stuff.
Detroit News Film Critic