Zodiac: The Miniseries

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02/03/2010 4:00 AM |

The Red Riding Trilogy

Imagine, if you will, how good Zodiac would have been as a TV show. David Fincher assembled a body of evidence that inspired in some critics an obsession more usually found on Lost message boards or in the pages of Wrapped in Plastic—as if the unresolved investigation were mirrored in open-ended storytelling, with every episode’s new clues promising greater satisfaction from the narrative’s eventual closure. Uneven as it is, the Red Riding trilogy—three films made for Britain’s Channel 4, from David Peace’s four novels weaving together loose threads of the lore surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper murders of the late 70s—demonstrates the almost primal engrossment that has, increasingly over the past two decades, led forward-thinking talent and attentive audiences to serial television.

Peace, like avowed influence James Ellroy, conspiracy-theorizes elaborate backstories for real grisly murders, bleeding the historical record together with rumor and psychosis. Both had youthful imaginations activated by violent crime (though the cold-case murder of Ellroy’s mother is even more twisted than Peace’s memories of a Yorkshire boyhood: “My sister used to say her prayers out loud every night, and she would always say, ‘Dear God, please don’t let the Ripper kill my mum,'” he once told the Guardian); this may explain the difficulty unsteeped viewers will have discerning real rape M.O.s and torture killings from fabricated ones.

The real is largely background here—the aboveground articulation of systemic rot. Tony Grisoni adapted all four of Peace’s novels, but 1977, set during real-life Ripper Peter Sutcliffe’s busiest year, went unfilmed for want of funds. The bookending child-abduction investigations are inspired by the brutal railroading of a meek tax clerk by the same corrupt Yorkshire police who were then bungling the Ripper hunt; the middle chapter fills in blank spots between the force, a (since unmasked) hoaxer, and a (still unsolved) copycat murder (names have been changed). The Yorkshire force (whale-faced Warren Clarke and bloodshot, ferrety Sean Harris are the best of a large cast of character turns) is ever-present, stymying Andrew Garfield’s hotshot journo in 1974, Paddy Considine’s outside investigator in 1980, and Mark Addy’s defense attorney in 1983. The cross-sectional focus, recurring characters and evolving period detail (mostly checks and flares in pub-lamp yellow and council-flat brown) suggest the comprehensive social networking of both sides of the law, turtlenecked developer Sean Bean, and his proto-Thatcherite housing developments, where the lower-class victims of the piece all seem to live. The expos√©, though, is frequently interrupted with stomach-turning sex-n-violence, and oversaturated with the baroque (each title-year is prefaced with a faded-in “The Year of Our Lord”). While James Marsh’s 1980 punchily mocks up stock footage, Julian Jarrold and Anand Tucker blow out 1974 and 1983‘s already symbolic innocence-lost child-murder plots with slo-mo and ominous portent.

Most mysteries write checks their solutions can’t cash; though Peace and Grisoni hardly go out with an Oswald Alone whimper, their Jacobean finale doesn’t drive you back to the scene of the crime, like Fincher’s cliff-hung data mine does. IFC Films will make Red Riding available theatrically as an afternoon-burning roadshow and then separately, and on the installment plan via video-on-demand; it’s ideally experienced not as tragedy in three acts but something to rush home to on successive school nights, to see what happens next—when not killing hours on google with amateur sleuthing of your own.

Opens February 5 at IFC Center