With Amanda Seyfried, Lukas Haas, Gary Oldman, Julie Christie, Virginia Madsen. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Rated PG-13 for violence and creature terror, and some sensuality. 100 minutes.
RED RIDING HOOD may take its jumping-off point from the famous fairy tale, but this is a much more complex take on the story and definitely not kiddie fare. Director Catherine Hardwicke, after the detour into “Twilight,” returns with a movie much more suitable for the filmmaker who did “Thirteen” and “Lords Of Dogtown.” Working with a script by David Johnson (“Orphan”), she fashions an atmospheric thriller that operates on several levels.
Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) lives in a medieval village in the mountains. She loves the young woodsman Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) but her mother (Virginia Madsen) has arranged a marriage to the blacksmith’s son Henry (Max Irons). The town has been ravaged by a mysterious wolf for years but seem to have made a deal where they leave a fresh animal out at each full moon and the wolf otherwise leaves them alone. Now, however, the wolf has claimed a human victim, none other than Valerie’s sister, who had a crush on Henry. This leads the village priest (Lukas Haas) to summon Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), who recognizes the beast not as a wolf but as a werewolf. Everyone in town is under suspicion because anyone could be the monster.
It’s a complex story with a good deal of subtext. Perhaps there’s too much material here and it might have worked better in novel form, but the film explores numerous issues from loveless marriages to oppressive authority to parents and children. When Father Solomon announces that everyone’s home will be searched and the innocent have nothing to fear, there are disturbing echoes of those who would trade away our liberty today in the belief that a modern wolf is at the door.
The vestiges of the fairy tale are here. Valerie’s grandmother (Julie Christie) makes her the red hood and cape of the title, which Father Solomon will later denounce as the garb of a “harlot.” There’s even the “What big eyes you have” scene, although it’s played much differently than in the fairy tale. Indeed, Hardwicke and Johnson seem to have reverse-engineered the well-known story and tried to come up with what might have inspired the children’s classic once it was sufficiently “cleaned up.” What’s important here is how the sins of the parents play out in subsequent generations, something that young children won’t appreciate and probably don’t need to hear.
The movie looks great, with a real sense of this remote village and how they are at the mercy of both the wolf and Father Solomon. The color scheme is subdued so that the scenes where Valerie wears her grandmother’s gift really stand out. One gets the sense of a place where people live and work rather than just people performing on an elaborate set.
“Red Riding Hood” may be a bit too ambitious for its own good but it’s an original variation on the story that is never dull or predictable. Indeed, the ending of the story is not likely to be something you could have predicted walking in. This is a movie that doesn’t play it safe, which makes it yet another surprise in what’s proving to be an interesting season at the movies. It would be great if they can keep this up the rest of the year.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.