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'Red Riding' goes into the heart of darkness

Kenneth Turan

The disturbing "Red Riding" trilogy will haunt you, night and day. If you survive the watching of it, that is, which is no easy thing.

It's not the five hours-plus length of this trio of bleak modern British noir films that's daunting. Far from it. Strongly made by three different directors with three different crews but using scripts from the same writer and the same cast for its recurring characters, these films are put together with so much ability and skill that the time simply melts away.

Rather, the hard paradox of this project is that what makes these merciless films at times almost unbearable to watch also makes them frankly impossible to get out of your mind. Not only do they create a gritty world thick with the fetid air of venality, but they also periodically traffic in horrific torture, sometimes shown, sometimes merely described, but always circling back to a series of sadistic, soul-destroying murders of women and little girls.

All this and more comes from a quartet of intense, chaotic novels by David Peace that in turn were inspired by events surrounding northern England's real-life Yorkshire Ripper murders.

While each book was initially supposed to get its own film, budget cuts at British TV giant Channel 4 meant that only three could be made.

Though the search for murderers is the engine of Tony Grisoni's scripts, that's not what the "Red Riding" films are about. These are unsettling, multilayered investigations of character and society, described by the screenwriter as akin to "Dickens on bad acid." In this thoroughly corrupt society, no one is pure enough to cast the first stone, but the drive to end unspeakable evil is still powerful.

These atmospheric pieces are set in Leeds, where accents are hard to decipher, and the cold gets in your bones. The "Red Riding" title comes from the Ridings, a trio of administrative areas in Yorkshire, with the addition of red likely calling attention to the violence of the murders and the allusion to the fairy tale reminding us that young girls were involved.

The first part, "1974," directed by Julian Jarrold, follows cocky Yorkshire Post crime reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) as he starts to suspect that the torture deaths of little girls during several years could be linked. His investigations lead him to surly chief detective Billy "The Badger" Molloy (Warren Clarke), powerful developer John Dawson (Sean Bean), local vicar Martin Laws (Peter Mullan), mysterious rent boy BJ (Robert Sheehan) and the beautiful, haunted young widow Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall). But no good will come of it.

Directed by James Marsh, the second part, "1980," involves a second series of murders, the ghastly Ripper attacks on women. The Home Office sends in a key operative from Manchester, Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), to try and figure out what's going on. Hunter wonders. "Who stops it?"

Attempting to answer that question, the third part, Anand Tucker's "1983," follows two characters, solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy) and top cop Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), as they attempt to get to the source of evil that always seems just out of reach.

"Red Riding: 1974" opens today at the Dobie, and "Red Riding: 1980" opens March 26. "Red Riding: 1983" opens April 2.

Rating: Unrated, violence, sexuality, adult themes. Running time: 5 hours, 5 minutes. Theaters: Dobie.