Nocturnal Animals (2016)

2017 #55
Tom Ford | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nocturnal Animals

In her second Oscar-worthy role of 2016 that didn’t even get nominated, Amy Adams plays rich art gallery owner Susan, who out of the blue receives a package from her ex-lover Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing an advance copy of his debut novel, which he’s dedicated to her. With the weekend alone to herself, Susan reads the novel — in which the family of Tony (Gyllenhaal again), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are terrorised by a gang led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before copper Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) helps them seek justice/revenge — in the process reliving memories of her tumultuous former relationship.

At first the plot of Edward’s novel seems more interesting than the framing narrative that contains it — after all, you’re pitching a tense thriller against a woman reading a book while she remembers falling for a guy. But as it becomes clear that the novel is just a pulpy thriller, and as the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s history reveal a mystery of their own, the balance begins to shift. The question is not really “why is the book dedicated to Susan”, because she clearly knows that from very early on. Instead, the quandary for the viewer is: what exactly did she do that merits this lurid tale being her… what? Punishment, maybe?

Although the story is black as night, it’s a beautifully constructed film — as you might expect from someone with a background in design like writer-director Tom Ford. It’s not just the visually appealing work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey or the film’s various designers that is so striking, though. The three narrative strands are expertly handled. There’s never any doubt about which is which, even when Ford at times intercuts between all three in one sequence, but he hasn’t resorted to simplistic tricks (like vastly different colour grading, say) to pull that off. It’s subtler, and more effective, than that.

Shocking reading

To guide the characters through his sombre narratives, Ford has put together a helluva cast. Of course there’s the primaries — Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson are all superb — but turning up for just a scene or two are the likes of Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, any of whom could be leads in their own right. It does make it slightly disconcerting when you assume someone that recognisable will turn up again later and then they don’t, but I suppose that just sits with the generally unsettling tone of the film.

Taking its artfulness to heart, some people have dismissed the film as being no more than an artily-dressed-up simplistic revenge story. Personally, I think the point of the story-within-the-story is to be simplistic. I don’t think Edward is meant to be a very good writer, and that’s why he’s produced a very pulpy novel. What matters is the effect this bluntly allegorical piece of trash storytelling has on the person it’s primarily aimed at — i.e. Susan. And there’s still ambiguity for the audience in just what Susan is interpreting from the novel. I mean, Edward is Tony, that’s obvious; and maybe he’s Bobby, too; and Susan must be Laura… but who is Ray? Is Ray just the concept of what happened between them made flesh? Or maybe Susan is actually Ray? Or perhaps Edward is Ray too? Or perhaps it’s something else entirely, I don’t know.

Who's who?

Equally ambiguous is the ending to the present-day framing narrative, but I’m not sure I have much to add to that other than what you can easily find online, so no spoilers here. Other than to say I think the main plot points are all solved (the story-within-the-story wraps up, and how it mirrors the characters’ history has been revealed), but there are some open-ended points that the viewer choose how to read as they see fit.

Nocturnal Animals has been a pretty divisive film. Lots of people compare it to last year’s even more controversial The Neon Demon, in one way or another — I’ve seen both “at least it’s better than…” and “it would make a good double bill with…” Well, I really ought to get round to that, then, because I admired Nocturnal Animals very much. It’s a beautiful movie about ugly deeds and ugly thoughts.

5 out of 5

Nocturnal Animals is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Nightcrawler (2014)

2017 #63
Dan Gilroy | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller is part “state of the nation” observational drama and part character study.

The character in question is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who, like so many in modern America, struggles to find paid employment. Indeed, as the film opens he’s resorted to stealing fences to hawk to scrap metal dealers — and, when cornered by a security guard, also resorts to violence. That’s the kind of man Bloom is, which will become important as the film goes on. On his way home he comes across the aftermath of a near-fatal car accident, and witnesses the freelance news cameramen rushing to the scene. For some reason this job strikes Bloom as glamorous, so he buys a camera and a police scanner and throws himself into it. His boundary-pushing enthusiasm soon puts him on the way to success, racing around nighttime L.A. chasing bloody imagery. It’s a cutthroat industry, but Bloom is prepared to go pretty far for exclusive footage…

Any well-informed viewer isn’t likely to glean much from Nightcrawler about the state of modern America. That Bloom is desperate for employment is more of an inciting incident than a dissected issue, though it does also partially fuel a subplot when he employs an assistant. That US TV news is all about shock value — “if it bleeds it leads” — is a truism that’s decades old, too. If the film contributes anything to that discussion it’s to wonder if things have reached a nadir. Writer-director Gilroy says he was trying to tell an objective and realistic story, but it’s coming from a very cynical, almost satirical place about TV news. Or maybe local US news really is that extreme, I don’t know. Either way, this observational stuff isn’t bad, but nor is it revelatory.

If it bleeds it leads

Where the film really flies is in its characters. There are impressive supporting performances, from Riz Ahmed as the uncertain and kinda gullible young guy Bloom employees as his assistant, and Rene Russo as the outwardly confident but actually kinda desperate TV news producer Bloom sell his work to; plus an almost cameo-level appearance by Bill Paxton as a rival nightcrawler who rubs Louis up the wrong way.

But the film belongs to Gyllenhaal. Wild-eyed, eager to please, but not quite right in how he interacts with other human beings, and with a real thirst for the gory profession he lands upon, Bloom has a sense of morality that is quite removed from the norm. From the start we’re in no doubt that this is a guy prepared to take relatively extreme measures to secure what he wants, but how far will he go? As he begins to establish himself as a respectable businessman — or, at least, someone who wants to be thought of as respectable — how much has his attitude changed, if at all? Gyllenhaal immerses himself in the role, skilfully negotiating Bloom’s swings from smarmy charm to emotionless non-engagement with the horrors he films. He’s physically transformed too: he lost weight, didn’t eat, and stayed up nights in preparation for the role. On the Blu-ray, Ahmed comments that the literal hunger Gyllenhaal was enduring contributed to his performance as a guy who is so hungry (for success) he’ll do anything necessary to achieve it.

(Talking of the Blu-ray, it’s only special feature (aside from an audio commentary) is a five-minute featurette that briefly features the two real-life nightcrawlers who consulted on the film. They share a couple of quick anecdotes about what the real job is like, which is quite fascinating — it’s a shame there’s not a fuller feature about those guys and their work. I don’t know if it would sustain a whole feature documentary — maybe it would — but a decent length DVD extra would’ve been nice.)

Nighttime L.A. car chase

Outside of its characters, Nightcrawler impresses with technical merits. The lensing of nighttime L.A. by DP Robert Elswit is highly evocative, a netherworld where flashing red-and-blue lights illuminate scenes of carnage. The film’s pace is apparently unhurried but constantly engrossing. You’re not exactly sucked into this world alongside Bloom (Gilroy’s right that presenting him as unnecessarily aggressive upfront serves to stall sympathy from the viewer), but you become an interested observer, unable to look away — like a rubbernecker at an accident, appropriately enough. Several scenes, especially in the film’s second half, generate a level of nail-biting tension, while a climactic car chase is an action scene for the ages. Gilroy’s brother Tony, a producer on the film, was one of the architects of the Bourne franchise, and you wonder if he brought some expertise to the realisation of that sequence. This isn’t a film for adrenaline junkies on the whole, but that scene is a kick.

Driven by a sharp character examination from writer-director Dan Gilroy, brought to life in a compelling, committed performance from Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is an appropriately cynical exploration of modern morality as embodied by one outsider, moulded in the shape of a fantastic noir thriller.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Nightcrawler is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, after which it will be available on iPlayer.

Nightcrawler was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Cold in July (2014)

2016 #118
Jim Mickle | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Cold in July

After a family man (Michael C. Hall) shoots dead an intruder in his home, the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) threatens his family.

People often call for more originality in their stories, then criticise a film like this for jumping around in genre and tone. Personally, I didn’t think it changed much in either. The plot is far from straightforward — twists take the story in unexpected directions with each act (if not even more often) — but as a whole it remains a neo-noir crime thriller.

Filling out the film beyond its story, there are some great performances — Shepard, in particular, says very little but conveys his whole character and attitude. It’s very nicely shot by Ryan Samul, and there’s an amazing score by Jeff Grace.

At first blush Cold in July may look like just another crime thriller, but, with an unguessable narrative supported by strong filmmaking, it stands out from the crowd.

5 out of 5

Cold in July placed 9th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

The Nice Guys (2016)

2016 #156
Shane Black | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Nice Guys

I’ve been struggling to think what to write in this review because, really, why I loved this movie can be thoroughly summed up in two words: it’s hilarious.

Screenwriter Shane Black has been doing this kind of action-thriller buddy comedy for decades now, but he’s still got it where it counts — there are quotable lines galore, and visual gags that would be just as quotable if you could quote a visual. As a director he may not be a great visual stylist or anything, but in an era of ShakyCam and obfuscatory editing, his helmsmanship has a welcome clarity.

As the titular duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling reveal heretofore unseen comedic chops (at least as far as I was aware). Crowe is more of the straight man, though gets his share of good lines, while Gosling bumbles around with pratfalls and slapstick, like in a perfectly-executed bit with a toilet cubicle door… which I would quote but, you know, visual gag. Like most of the best characters, they’re entertaining just to be around, often making scenes of exposition as entertaining as actual set pieces. Most of the villains serve as foils for our heroes, but young Angourie Rice shines as Gosling’s clever kid.

What do you mean there's not much chance of a sequel?

Tonally, it’s every inch a spiritual sequel to Black’s directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I’m very much OK with that. If you copy someone else it’s plagiarism; if you copy yourself it’s your style — you know, that kind of thing. If someone lets Black do another one of these once he’s finished with The Predator — either literally The Nice Guys 2 (as has been mooted, but probably ruled out by the so-so box office) or just something else in the same vein — I would be a very happy bunny.

5 out of 5

The Nice Guys is available on Netflix UK from today.

It placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

Blue Ruin (2013)

2015 #171
Jeremy Saulnier | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

This neo-noir revenge drama with a twist has received such acclaim from critics and bloggers alike that it’s practically set up to fail.

Its guiding principle is neat: a semi-comedic version of what would actually happen if an Ordinary Joe tried to enact violent vengeance on murderous criminals. So the action is less Taken and more that fight from Bridget Jones, but with guns and a real-world aesthetic.

Frankly, I admired rather than enjoyed it. It’s a one-hit premise that doesn’t scratch the same itch as a ‘proper’ revenge actioner, nor fulfil the more rewarding aspects of a ‘proper’ drama.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Parker (2013)

2015 #2
Taylor Hackford | 119 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

ParkerParker trailed well — funny lines, promising action, solid setup — but doesn’t deliver.

The funny lines remain funny, but the trailer has them all. The plot’s generic — not necessarily a problem, but here it’s hampered by pointless asides and subplots. The action only delivers once or twice, the best being a mano-a-mano brawl featuring a great climax on a hotel balcony.

Reportedly Hackford wanted to make this a film noir. You can spot story elements he must have been thinking of, but it doesn’t feel like one, and certainly doesn’t look like one.

Fitfully adequate, but not even among Statham’s best.

2 out of 5

Jason Statham stars in the superior Safe, on 5* tonight at 9pm and reviewed here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Snake Eyes (1998)

2010 #86
Brian De Palma | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Kick-Ass, Knowing, National Treasure 2, Matchstick Men, now Snake Eyes — I feel like I’m seeing a lot of Nicolas Cage of late. (To be precise, it’s five films in as many months.) It’s not a conspiracy, I assure you, just an almighty coincidence.

Unlike in Snake Eyes, in which it’s no coincidence that a top boxer throws a fight seconds before the US Secretary of Defense is assassinated right behind dirty cop Rick Santoro (Cage), all in a lovely 12-minute opening take. And there’s plenty more to it than that, but I wanted the sentence to be halfway legible. Who did it? Why? How’s it all connected? Who’s involved? Such are the questions to be answered in the ensuing near-real-time neo-noir.

Let’s start with the opening take. It’s a fake (there are eight cuts), which is pretty obvious, but it’s still a nifty way of starting the film. As well as being the kind of thing I always like to see, it sets up nearly everything we need to know for the rest of the film. Almost every element of the conspiracy is tucked away in there somewhere, from the blatantly obvious to the tiniest detail we won’t even notice. It’s just one of many long takes director Brian De Palma deploys throughout the film, including one that sails over various hotel rooms for no reason other than it looks pretty cool. Which is fine — there’s nothing wrong with looking cool, especially in a crime thriller film set in an Atlantic City casino.

Another thing I always like is real-time. I don’t know why, but there’s something pleasing about a story that unfurls in exactly the time it takes to tell it, that doesn’t skip over characters getting places or cheat our sense of relative time for a nifty editing-based twist (which I’m not saying can’t work — just look at Silence of the Lambs — but there’s also a skill in avoiding it). Perhaps there’s just a thrill in the logistical challenge of making the concept — which is highly unnatural to film and TV — work. The first season of 24 paid much attention to it, to good effect; later seasons didn’t and, in my opinion, suffered. Johnny Depp-starer Nick of Time also used it, though I can’t remember much about that except it was total rubbish. Snake Eyes doesn’t stick to its real-time as rigidly as 24, but it was good enough to satiate me. By the time it begins to deviate significantly from the concept, the story’s got so involving that it no longer matters.

And another thing I always like is a bit of noir. Snake Eyes fits the bill, with ‘heroic’ characters of questionable morality, voluptuous femme fatales, vicious villains, double dealings, punch-ups in shadowy alleys, and dozens of other generic signifiers that I’ll leave it for you to discover and/or remember. I was rather surprised to discover it wasn’t on Wikipedia’s era-encompassing list of film noir (until I added it): I’m not always that good at identifying what counts as post/neo-noir (one might ask “who is?” considering the genre’s broad/nonexistent definition), but I’d say Snake Eyes is pretty much undoubtable in its noir-ness.

Based on IMDb scores and Rotten Tomatoes ratings and whatnot, it seems Snake Eyes isn’t very well regarded. Honestly, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s too stylised for some tastes — not everyone will like the long takes, the flashbacks, the point-of-view shots, the split screen, or Cage’s usual OTT performance — but I enjoy all of these things when used well, and here they are. Cage, for instance, isn’t permanently OTT, finding the character’s more realistic side when called upon; his style doesn’t always work, this is certainly true, but here it’s a match.

If there’s one significant flaw, it’s that the ending is too much based on convenience and coincidence; and someone in the editing room should’ve paid more attention to removing all references to the original, deleted ending in which the casino got flooded. I have no idea why that was removed — maybe someone thought it was a bit ludicrous. But it sounds more satisfying than what was included, which, as noted, relies on a handy spot of coincidence and at least one action that seems out of character. I can forgive it though, because I liked everything else. And the post-climax montage is a suitably downbeat ending to our hero’s story — another noir trait there.

Snake Eyes certainly isn’t perfect — as well as the above, I’m sure some take issue with its occasionally implausible conspiracy plotting — but if one accepts that it’s set in a slightly more noir-ish world than our own, and that half the fun is to be had from De Palma’s visual trickery, I think there’s a lot to like. And like it I did.

4 out of 5

Snake Eyes is on BBC One tonight, Sunday 26th April 2015, at 11:35pm.

Red Riding: 1983 (2009)

aka Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983

2009 #52
Anand Tucker | 100 mins | TV (HD) | 15

Red Riding: 1983The Red Riding Trilogy draws to a close with its finest instalment, a superior work in just about every respect.

From the off, 1983 returns to the story of the previous films, showing events from different perspectives. It’s dominated by a new story — the search for a child kidnapper in the titular year — but even this harks back to the past, the actual kidnapping closely resembling the one that kick-started 1974. Indeed, it’s 1974 that’s primarily drawn upon, confirming 1980 as little more than an aside in the scope of the trilogy.

1983 doesn’t just reiterate, however, but builds on previously-seen events and characters, both overtly — showing the police investigation into Clare Kemplay, which was the story of 1974 — and more subtly — Hunter’s apparent sidekick being present at secret meetings of the Evil Policemen in 1974. Despite clear links to the past, 1983 may also work well enough on its own. It’s undeniable that there’s more depth when viewed in light of the first two films, but most (perhaps all) of it would be comprehensible simply from what’s presented here.

Tucker’s film bests its predecessors in almost every assessable value. The story and characters have more genuine surprises and suspense than ever, while the performances are at the very least the equal of what’s gone before. Unlike the other two films, where the corrupt cops were little more than cartoon villains despite claims to the contrary, 1983 makes their brutality really felt; here, for the first time in the trilogy, their disregard for the law and their vicious methods made me feel sickened and angry, just as they should.

But best of all is the stunning sepia-tinged cinematography, which uses the popular RED cameras to amazing effect. The instances of beauty are too numerous to mention, from obvious moments such as the final scenes of white feathers drifting in slow motion through shards of sunlight as part of a heroic closing image (even if one finds it tonally incongruous, which some surely will, it looks gorgeous), to low-key scenes like Jobson lost in contemplation, the sepia-toned foreground standing out from the blues of the background. The omnipresence of lens flare, an idea that was so annoying when liberally sprinkled across Star Trek, seems to work perfectly here. Perhaps it’s due to consistency: every light source seems to cast streaks across the frame, not just the occasional flourish. The trilogy isn’t yet available on Blu-ray, but for some of the images in this film alone it really should be.

Sadly, 1983 still isn’t perfect. Many plot threads are tied off, or we can infer our own explanations for the missing bits, but significant others are left hanging, not least what happened to the numerous corrupt police officers. We don’t necessarily need to see them come to justice — though that might be nice, obviously — or even a summary of the rest of their life, but some nod of a conclusion to their stories would be appreciated. Elsewhere, BJ’s narration is slightly twee, which is a shame because his story is both compelling and one of very few that is actually told across all three films, even though he’s barely noticed at first, rather than just starring in one and cameoing in the others.

I enjoyed 1983 immensely, much more so than either of the preceding films, so it’s only minor flaws like these that hold it back from full marks.

4 out of 5

Red Riding: 1980 (2009)

aka Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980

2009 #51
James Marsh | 93 mins | TV (HD) | 15

This review contains major spoilers.

Red Riding: 1980The second instalment of the Red Riding Trilogy sets out its stall with a stunning opening montage, covering six years of the Yorkshire Ripper case in as many minutes through news footage and faux news footage. In one fell swoop this establishes its own storyline, fills in some of what’s happened since 1974, and sets itself apart from its predecessor: this one’s based on fact. Well, a bit.

Unfortunately, a factual grounding hasn’t helped the story one jot. Where the first idled, this meanders, flitting between the Yorkshire Ripper, the investigation into the Karachi Club shooting (which closed 1974), and the private life of lead character Peter Hunter. It’s the cover up surrounding the middle of these that’s the most interesting, but that’s also the bit with the least time devoted to it. Most is spent on Hunter’s investigation into the investigation of the Ripper case, though by the end it becomes apparent this exists to cover the ‘real’ story — which is, of course, the Karachi Club cover up. Consequently neither are covered with the appropriate depth: the Ripper investigation is never a serious thread, the team we follow uncovering nothing significant and the Ripper himself captured by chance, off-screen, by a previously-unseen regular constable; and the incidents at the Karachi Club, and their lasting impact, are just about clarified but given no serious weight before a last-minute explanation.

If that sounds complicated, it isn’t. As in 1974, it’s all too straightforward: the people you suspect did it actually did, as it turns out, and there’s no serious attempt to conceal that. In fairness, it just about manages one surprise, right at the end, and the moment after this — where Hunter’s murderer shows remorse with one brief, subtle facial expression — is by far the best bit of the film. Worse than the lack of suspense, 1980 seems to forget its own plot all too often. Hunter is employed by the Home Office, for example, and told to report directly to them and them alone. But then we never see those characters again, not even when he’s later dismissed by lower-ranked officers — why not return to the men he was, supposedly, actually employed by? Other plot points are pushed aside too soon, forgotten about or just abandoned.

Characters and locations resurface from the first film — an unsurprising continuity, but pleasingly almost all appear in a context that’s actually relevant to the plot, rather than a mere catch-up on a previously-known person. Some of them have great import now, their role in the trilogy apparently fulfilled, while others remain little more than cameos with no bearing on the story, suggesting an even bigger part still to play. This works quite well, creating a real world where characters come and go rather than one that is obsessively — and unrealistically — interconnected.

The same can be said of the cinematography. Marsh frequently finds a beautiful or unusual shot, enlivening proceedings considerably. The 35mm glossiness doesn’t evoke the feel of a grimy past quite so thoroughly as Jarrold’s hazy 16mm, but as this is now the ’80s perhaps that’s the point. Nonetheless, the setting conveyed is still a drab, dreary — and constantly damp — North.

Underscored by a plot that doesn’t really come together, and largely bears little relation to the other two films, 1980 is the weakest entry in the trilogy.

3 out of 5

Red Riding: 1974 (2009)

aka Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974

2009 #50
Julian Jarrold | 102 mins | TV (HD*) | 18

Red Riding: 1974The Red Riding Trilogy covers nine years of police corruption and child kidnap/murder in Yorkshire, amongst one or two other things, and begins here with a very film noir tale, courtesy of author David Peace and screenwriter Tony Grisoni, slathered in neo-noir stylings, courtesy of director Julian Jarrold.

Jarrold is most recently responsible for Kinky Boots, Becoming Jane and Brideshead Revisited, all of which stand in a sharp juxtaposition to the style and content of Red Riding. But turning from his lovely English-as-they-come costume dramas to something altogether nastier should come as no great surprise, for Jarrold is merely returning to his TV roots: in the mid ’90s he directed episodes of Cracker, Silent Witness and Touching Evil.

He certainly seems to know his territory, but perhaps he knows it too well — though this is also the fault of Grisoni and, perhaps, Peace — as the plot that he unfolds is not only familiar but told as if he’s all too aware we know what’s coming. The feeling one gets is of a British James Ellroy, albeit a low-rent, less complex version. (The same is true of 1980, though for me 1983 manages to escape such comparisons.) The story idles along, not exactly slow so much as in no hurry, full of near-clichéd plot points and an unrelentingly standard structure. These things aren’t necessarily a problem, but when you’ve got as big and bold a reality claim as the Red Riding Trilogy they feel out of place.

Another recent point of comparison would be David Fincher’s Zodiac — young newspaperman on the hunt for a serial killer in an inspired-by-fact ’70s setting — though this does 1974 no favours. It may be grittier than Fincher’s film, but it lacks the polish, the originality, and manages to feel slower, despite being a whole 50 minutes shorter. However much arty photography, disjointed storytelling, relatively dense accents and ‘gritty reality’ is plastered over the barebones of the tale, the familiarity of it — to both viewers and the makers, who don’t even seem to be trying — means there’s not an ounce of suspense or surprise to be had.

The cast is made up of established names, familiar faces and rising stars, many of them unfortunately stuck in familiar roles or otherwise left stranded by the unrewarding material. If they’re not quite stereotypes it’s because they’re too bland, lacking enough discernible character traits to reach such lofty heights. Occasionally this is because, with two films to come, some minor parts here have a major role later, but this can’t be said of them all. As the lead, Andrew Garfield’s journalist is as much of a stock character as the plot he finds himself in: a young reporter type, idealistic among journalists who no longer care (if they ever did), hunting to expose The Truth. Again, it could work, but is belied by the insistence — in both promotion and filmmaking style — that Red Riding is something more than Another Murder Mystery. Only Rebecca Hall, as a mother whose young daughter went missing years earlier, is granted the material to give an outstanding performance — which she does, easily justifying her recent BAFTA Rising Star nomination.

Besides Hall, the best thing about 1974 is its dull, desaturated photographing of grimy, desolate locations, where any colour that isn’t beige desperately wants to be. It suits the story and era perfectly, and the choice of 16mm seems to add a level of haziness that is equally appropriate. It’s perhaps indicative of everything this is aiming for that the most beautiful imagery is of an incinerated gypsy camp. Rendered almost black and white by the soot and desaturisation, ash floats through the air like snowflakes as Garfield stumbles through it, the whole picture a vision of Hell. It’s a kind of perverse beauty, true, but that’s also entirely in keeping with Red Riding.

1974 is a stock noir tale, dressed up with fancy filmmaking techniques and claims of realism to look like something more truthful, more real, more Important. And it makes me a little bit angry because of it. Maybe the violence is more realistically depicted than your average genre entry, maybe the police corruption is a little more plausible — then again, maybe it isn’t — but the real story here is so familiar they haven’t even bothered to hide the plot beats and twists properly, no doubt assuming a “gritty” veneer plastered over the top would do the job for them. It doesn’t. Maybe 1974’s grimy setting, brutal violence and unbeatable police corruption are all true to life, but the familiar and predictable plot leaves the realism feeling like no more than a pretence.

I was enjoying 1974 a lot more by the time the unexpectedly satisfying conclusion came around, but the sense that it had tried to pull the wool over my eyes throughout — and not in the good way a thriller should — just leaves a bitter taste.

3 out of 5

* Though I watched Red Riding: 1974 on 4HD, it’s my understanding that it was upscaled. ^