The outrageously grim Red Riding trilogy is, on its surface, a turbid crime epic of noirish involution and whodunit suspense, but look at that sinisterly clipped title again, for it betrays the basic black magic throbbing at the bloody core of this five-hour nightmare. Intricate plotting and timeline hijinks notwithstanding, the Red Riding films boil down to a recapitulation of the fairy tale from which this British enterprise nicks its name, only the wolf here is a chimera comprising corrupt cops, venal newspapermen, amoral capitalists and perverted clerics. Who is Little Red Riding Hood, then? We are. The world is. And we're screwed, mate. Screwed. What big teeth, indeed.

Adapted by screenwriter Tony Grisoni from David Peace's quartet of novels (1977 remains unfilmed), Red Riding premiered on Britain's Channel 4 in March 2009. A different director tackles each of Grisoni's dense screenplays, and although the films diverge aesthetically, they are all moored to Peace's cynical vision of Yorkshire, England, in the '70s and early '80s. Peace grew up in Yorkshire; like James Ellroy's Los Angeles, it is ground zero for everything sour and wrong in this world. It's a place where baby rapers, serial killers and psychopaths with badges rule the wet streets beneath northern England's threatening skies.

Gloomy Yorkshire and its corrupted seats of power remain relatively constant through all three installments, but each film conveys a new protagonist into the fog of coverups and collusion. 1974 begins when Yorkshire native Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), an idealistic young reporter angling to take over his hometown's crime beat, returns from a stint in the south to bury his father and investigate the disappearance of 10-year-old Clare Kemplay, whose vanishing act echoes recent unsolved cases. When Clare is found dead on a construction site owned by developer John Dawson (Sean Bean), Dunford begins connecting dots that certain powerful men don't want connected, and if those men can't erase the dots, they're going to erase Dunford instead. The world of Yorkshire is impenetrable in every way, as if space and time and relationships have folded in on themselves, and director Julian Jarrold's compositions favor blurred foregrounds and bustling backgrounds to create a kind of insomniac claustrophobia that haunts the subsequent films.

Eddie's journey climaxes in a haunting freeze frame, and 1974 draws to a close with it, but the clock still ticks, the film still rushes through the gate, and the evil still lurks. In 1980, the perfidy is ostensibly embodied by the Yorkshire Ripper, whose killing spree brings detective Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) into the mix, but the Ripper's trail leads Hunter to the same web that claimed Eddie Dunford, while it ushers us forward to confront Red Riding's cynical thesis. James Marsh's direction is crisp and Considine's performance is effortlessly limpid, but 1980's relative clarity is a front for Peace's vision of a civilization that needs aberrational Rippers. Where else are we supposed to draw a line in the blood? How else to divide good and evil, order and chaos, salvation and sin? The madman gives us reason to believe we are not mad, and the cops chasing him convince us we are not alone in the seemingly shrinking camp of sanity and decency, but those distinctions are fabricated—the rot runs too deep. Red Riding might be a fairy tale, but it's a fairy tale about how fairy tales tell necessary lies.

These aren't exactly revolutionary ideas—most film noir finds its way to the same bleak truth—but what's remarkable about Red Riding is its dogged determination to stay mired in the muck for as long as possible, to avoid letting any light in until the last possible minute. Anand Tucker's 1983 is the most perplexing and optimistic of the three films, with a confusing flashback structure that collapses everything we've learned into a redemption tale about a sad-sack lawyer (The Full Monty's Mark Addy) who sniffs out the leads left hanging by Dunford and Hunter. Tucker's film wages a war with itself, as if resisting the very closure it seeks. Can a happy ending exist after five hours—or seven years—in hell? I don't think the Red Riding trilogy has the answer to that. God knows I don't.


Red Riding: 1974

opens Friday, March 26, at Living Room Theaters.

Red Riding: 1980

opens April 2, and

Red Riding: 1983

opens April 9.