Red Riding Hood is the single most confusing movie-going experience of the last decade. The movie itself is not confusing. No, no. Far from it. The movie itself is about as straightforward as it gets. The characters all say either exactly what’s happening or exactly what’s on their minds pretty much at all times.
It’s the few moments of pure storytelling inspiration, cliche-busting plot turns, and great performances amidst a sea of terrible that’s completely baffling. How can things that great be involved in something so awful?
To get the easy out of the way first, this movie is not Twilight. Marketing plans do not have to mirror the product, and here the differences are obvious. Where Twilight is an empty, motionless film filled with staring and not much else, Red Riding Hood has a story that moves forward briskly, practically boiling over with dialogue and soap opera storylines.
There are some truly inspired things about the film. At points, it feels like little more than a parade of very pretty faces, but it manages some brilliance. Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie – a girl drawn to the safely rebellious Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) but meant to marry actually-pretty-nice-guy Henry (Max Irons). When her sister is killed by the werewolf that lives in the woods, it breaks a decades-old pact, and the villagers set out to destroy it.
It’s lucky they call in the werewolf expert Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) because he not only informs them that the werewolf lives among them, he also does a lot of the heavy lifting in the acting department.
So, yes. Gary Oldman is fantastic as he always is when he keeps it reigned in. He’s cruel here, but his character has an earnestly tortured backstory, and he’s earned the right to be a complete ass. His moments on screen are a welcome respite from much of the rest of it. Seyfried is strong as well, and the cast is filled with the kind of character actors you’d want on your side in a performance-off (how gangs on Broadway settle things) – Lukas Haas as a local religious man, Virginia Madsen as Valerie’s mother, Julie Christie (as the creepy, creepy, creepy Grandmother), and Billy Burke as Valerie’s wild-eyed father.
When the movie is focusing on the mystery of who the wolf is, it’s at its best (even though its absolutely no surprise). Fortunately, writer David Leslie Johnson defies the mystery convention of the red herring by blowing it up. Instead of having one red herring, every single character is a red herring (even the guilty party). The mentally challenged boy who exists for no real reason, the sweet but strange grandmother, the calm but too quiet local pastor, the doting mother, the troubled father, the best friend who is barely in the story at all, the slightly violent boyfriend, the too sweet fiance, and every other person in the village.
However, when the story moves away from that and onto the romance, it gets beyond tedious. It’s generally fun to watch Amanda Seyfried roll around in the hay with handsome guys, but it’s almost like a subplot that should have been dialed down got accidentally turned up to eleven. The chemistry is fine, but in the face of people being brutally murdered all over the place, who’s dancing with whom seems pretty silly to worry about. Until, you know, Valerie decides to make Peter jealous by dancing sensuously with a woman.
That’s where most of the confusion comes in. Not the lesbionic dancing. That makes sense (although it’s executed with fists of ham). The confusion is in the blend of incredible quality and downright atrocious crap. There are elements of the script here that are incredible. A character gets killed violently in defiance of the genre rules, a simple statement is made by our heroine that rings perfect, a motivation for revenge is utterly, deeply believable.
Then, there’s everything else.
There are the head-scratching moments where a character says, “There’s a fork in the cave” when, you guessed it, the giant image on the screen is a fork in the cave. There’s the needless exposition. The moment the movie gets stupid (and, trust me, you’ll know it if you see it). Line delivery from a mini-major side character that sounds like she popped a few valium before cameras rolled. The moment the movie gets stupid-er (which, spoilers be damned, involves that same character trying to offer a man of God sex in a scene that makes Liv Tyler undressing for Rex Manning look like a Prince video).
Then, there’s the unspeakable. The mystery is pretty much what this movie has going for it (above and beyond the eye-candy, which should be praised), but it has no reason to exist. There’s a werewolf living in the village? It’s under Marshall Law in a abortive attempt to make some sort of comment on what fear does to freedom?
So get everyone together in one place (preferably the church), and wait. The one that turns into the werewolf is the werewolf. Problem solved. No one else has to die! Hooray!
The same movie that has all that schlock and a massive plot hole still manages to contain some genuinely interesting visuals, a few cool sequences, and it admirably takes the difficult path of making Valeria choose between two good men. It’s a love triangle that doesn’t have one short side for convenience. In some ways, the film succeeds because it challenges itself. In others, it’s lazy or seems like a producer went into the editing bay, had a nervous breakdown, and insisted that audiences would never understand what was in front of their eyes unless a character acted as a human caption.
The CGI werewolf is the best-looking werewolf of 1998, which is disappointing. The rest of the production design is surreal in its mixed bag of influences. The village is set in a Medieval European valley in America somewhere in the past, but everyone is beautiful there (it must be in Sweden, Colorado). You can tell that even the elderly used to be models in their younger days. There was no attempt to age any of the clothing. They are but simple peasants, yet they’re all wearing $500 dollar haute couture fresh off the rack. They chop wood for a hard day’s living, but they listen to techno music while getting plastered and are never short on hair gel for their faux-hawk. It seems like they went to the fifty-yard line on stealing A Knight’s Tale‘s modern injection into the past, but it all ends up just making things more confused.
Over all, Catherine Hardwicke has created a harmless fairy tale without any teeth. There are some head-slappingly bad moments, there are some fantastic scenes, and most of the movie is somewhere hanging out in designer chainmail in the middle. What’s most confusing is that it came from a single writer. Normally with a flick that runs the gamut of quality, it’s because of the patchwork script created from different minds. Not here. I have to assume it was tampered with, because if I don’t, my mind will explode trying to imagine a writer that terrible and that talented living in one body.
The Upside: Some beautiful people, an interesting experiment in fairy tale formula, an interesting mystery.
The Downside: Some moronic plot choices, actors that shouldn’t have been hired, bad CGI, a love story that seems shoved in against its will, a mystery discredited instantly by a plot hole.
On the Side: The story is obviously directly from the fairy tale of the same name, but it also manages a few other childhood wolf references like The Three Litle Pigs and Peter and the Wolf.