Saturday, March 12, 2011
Red Riding Hood 
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -
If you like your fairytales to be simple and straightforward then David Johnson’s (writer) and Catherine Hardwicke’s (director) Red Riding Hood re-imagining of this classic would _not_ be for you. Since this is Hollywood production after all, there is some fairly crass borrowing, mixing and matching from previously commercially successful films. About midway into the picture, I imagined it being pitched to studio executives as "the Twilight series meets The Name of the Rose with a werewolf substituting for Twilight’s vampires." And since Amanda Seyfried (young, blonde, sympathetic with trademark big blue eyes) was signed to play the role of Vanessa (Little Red Riding Hood in this movie), I’d probably be opening my checkbook as well if I were being tapped to invest in the film.
Still, as I often do, I do believe that there is more to this picture than simply an attempt to cash-in one more time on the bonanza that the Twilight series seemed to have wrought. And I do believe that it is the sheer convolutedness of the Johnson’s/Hardwicke’s retelling of this story that redeems the film.
Set deep in the cgi-forests of Medieval Europe (seriously, the sets and scenery in this movie are really good, something that any Neverwinter Nights gamer would certainly appreciate), a village named Daggerhorn finds itself terrorized by a wolf. For about a generation, the townspeople have paid the wolf off: Each full moon, they leave a young pig tethered to a sacrificial stone in the middle of the village for the wolf to devour. In return, the wolf leaves the villagers alone.
Well, one full moon and for reasons unclear, the wolf breaks the arrangement and kills one of the young maidens of the village, Vanessa’s older sister. This sends the villagers into a panic and into a rage. A more pious villager sends for help of a priest, Father Solomon (played by Gary Oldman. Note that in the world of the movie, priests marry and combat Evil with both prayers and swords). Other villagers just want to take matter into their own hands. Organizing a posse, they venture to the cave where the wolf is said to have its lair and finding a wolf there, kill it.
A few days later Father Solomon arrives. Some of the villagers suspicious of the motives and actual abilities of the priest, tell him proudly that they’ve killed the wolf themselves ("See the wolf’s head here on a pike") and that they don’t need him. Fr. Solomon assures them that all they have is an innocent wolf’s head on that pike, and that the village is up against a werewolf, which is much more insidious. He explains that a werewolf spends most of its time in human form, changing into the shape of a wolf only at the time of the full moon, and since the werewolf is not really a wolf but a cursed human being, the werewolf was probably a villager or someone living near the village. Initially, most of the villagers dismiss Fr. Solomon as inflating his importance. But when he proves to be correct (the werewolf strikes again, indeed, killing some of the most arrogant of the villagers), panic sets in.
Fr. Solomon then sets about organizing the village to combat this terrifying threat that could be both internal and external and above all supernatural and deceitful. Yes, his methods are draconian and often arbitrary. And yes, Fr. Solomon generally comes across as being creepy. But this movie has been made in post 9/11 America and after the sex scandals that rattled the Catholic Church here in the U.S. some years ago. So while Fr. Solomon is portrayed as being somewhat creepy, he is also portrayed as being actually quite sincere and still at least "in the ball park knowledgeable" about what the village is trying combat. The others really don’t have a clue at all. And when it comes to "creepy," even "grandma" (played by Julie Christie) is portrayed as rather creepy as well as Vanessa's love interest in the movie Peter (played by Shiloh Fernandez). Indeed, Peter looks like a Twilight character who didn’t get around to leaving the set after the rest of the cast and crew had packed up and went home after finishing that movie. Finally it turns out that _everybody_ in the village, including most importantly to Red Riding Hood all the adults in her life -- ma, pa and grandma -- had their secrets. So figuring out who actually is the werewolf terrorizing the village becomes a surprisingly good "who-done-it" guessing game for the audience. About 2/3 into the picture, I was smiling (in recognition of the success of the writer/director in this regard) saying to myself, "It really could be anybody."
So what’s going on here? I think that the reworking of the story works because it is a remarkably good a "fairy tale" reflection of our time. Since 9/11, the United States has felt terrorized by a threat that could "come from anywhere." Fr. Solomon representing in the movie both church and state plays a deeply flawed "Dick Cheney figure in a cassock and a beard" in the story -- Yes, he's rather creepy, yes the audience will generally not like him. Yes, he’s even stabbing in the dark. But _no one else_ seems to have come-up with a better alternative. And so, yes, we are "running scared." Then, with each week, month, and year each with each "turning of the page in the newspaper" it is turning out that pretty much everybody in our society seems to "have a secret," and that anybody could actually be complicit, aiding and abetting (and in various ways) in the terrors facing us today. So the "big bad wolf" is seemingly everywhere.
As with other thrillers that I've reviewed here, I’ll leave it to the viewers to follow the movie’s hunt for the werewolf to allow them to see if they can figure out who it is before the mystery gets revealed and then to render their own judgement as to whether it all makes sense. Again, I found the "who-done-it" aspect of the film to be remarkably well done.
I would not recommend the movie to little kids, but to teens I would say okay. Yes, some Catholic/Christian parents may object to the way Fr. Solomon is portrayed in the movie. But actually, while portrayed as flawed, he is also portrayed in a multi-dimensional way. He is portrayed as being _not merely flawed_. And that parents sometimes have secrets is something that teens often discover about their parents anyway and is _part_ of the reason why a movie like this works today. For better or sadly worse in this case, the movie strikes a chord.
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