There’s a moment early on in Red Riding Hood when the heroine and title character, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), is talking about her love for a boy named Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), and the things that love makes her do, that acts a kind of key for the whole film. Valerie and Peter live with their families in a small village surrounded by a wood that we’re told is dark and deep, though it doesn’t actually appear to be that imposing. As she watches him cut lumber, she says in a voice-over that she knows “girls aren’t supposed to hunt rabbits or go into the woods alone” but that “Peter had a way of making me break the rules.” The line is meant to underscore Valerie’s desire to break free from the gender stereotypes that plague her village as well as fairy tales in general: she’s no weak-willed girl, but a young woman capable of making her own decisions based on self-interest and her own perception of propriety. Yet this turns out to be a total hoax, or rather, a misdirection. There’s nothing at all in the story that’s any different from the tens of thousands of other teen-centered melodramas in which boy and girl conspire to love each other despite the interfering plans of their elders. The core of the story is staggeringly normal in that regard, yet the film acts as if the lip service paid to its heroine in the opening minutes will be enough to trick people into thinking they’re seeing something different, or better. Telling a boring and often ridiculous story from a girl’s perspective instead of a boy’s isn’t empowering; it’s still boring, just with different music. It’s impossible not to think that the presence here of director Catherine Hardwicke — who got her start with Thirteen and also helmed Twilight — is merely another tool in a machine meant to produce an illusion of individuality and strength, when what we’re really seeing is a wisp of smoke on mirrors to cover up the fact that everything on screen is remarkably unoriginal.
The core of the script from David Johnson (Orphan) is a take on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale that also incorporates elements of The Village, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Crucible, and Romeo and Juliet. Valerie’s village is plagued by a werewolf, but the townspeople have reached an agreement: they tie up an animal sacrifice on the night of a full moon, and the wolf steals in and takes the animal but spares the citizens. It’s a solid plan until Valerie’s sister turns up dead from a wolf attack, which prompts a crackdown on the beast and a visit from Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a religious official of ill-defined power and total devotion to the cause. Admittedly, there’s a degree to which Solomon’s precise role in the fictional world’s diocese doesn’t need to be addressed: this is an adaptation of a fairy tale, and most descriptions never go much further than “the forest” or “my father.” However, without a reason to treat this man as anything more than a symbol, it’s hard to get worked up, even when he begins rounding up the villagers and telling them that the werewolf is actually one of their own, living in secret and killing at will.
Caught in the middle of the growing conspiracy are Valerie, Peter, and Henry (Max Irons). Valerie’s mother has promised her to Henry, which leads to the standard amount of posturing and member-measuring between Peter and Henry while Valerie mostly goes about her business and makes out with Peter whenever she gets a chance. Valerie’s not at all torn between the two, giving herself completely to Peter despite the protests of her mother, which again plays more like a normal teenager’s act than anything speaking to Valerie’s role as a young woman in her society. (And we wouldn’t even have to go there and make that distinction if Johnson hadn’t trotted it out under our noses in the first five minutes.) The broader problem of the triangle is that it’s composed of one talented and charismatic actress and two young men with the approximate emotional range of wet newspaper. Being likable and interesting is often a walk in the park for Seyfried, whose skill becomes all the more obvious when she’s forced to converse with Fernandez and Irons, who seem to have a total of three facial expressions between them and at most two different ways to poise their eyebrows.
Johnson’s script doesn’t give the performers much to work with, either, loaded as it is with exposition dumps and a few too many characters, all of which keep the film from cohering until far too late. The only part of the screenplay that offers any interest is the academic question of which townsperson is actually the werewolf, and even that becomes muddied in the direction. The problem is that everyone acts guilty, which is senseless: everyone who isn’t a werewolf should be doing their best to profess their innocence instead of slinking around in the dark, going missing without explanation, and acting generally weird. This is what happens when a film ceases to be a window into a fictional world and takes on an air of affected creation, as if it knows deep down that it’s being acted for our benefit. Here’s another example: Late in the film, Valerie is traveling through the woods and meets a man she fears is the werewolf. Panicked, she lands a shallow cut on his chest with her knife before running away. After a few steps she turns to look back, and he’s gone. (There’s not even blood on the snow-white ground.) His quick escape is meant to imply that he’s the wolf, yet — and I am spoiling absolutely nothing here, you have to trust me — he’s actually not. The head-fake works in the moment, but in hindsight it’s just a cheap trick. Had the man simply lain there, or tried to call out for help, he might still have been the wolf, but more importantly, he would have been acting in a plausible way that gels with what we know of the world and what we’d expect of the situation. His decision to disappear into the woods, while wounded no less, doesn’t fit with the story, only the writer and director’s desire to trick the viewer. That’s not suspense; it’s pandering.
Hardwicke’s still got an eye for style, though. The village and its environs are given a suitably creepy design from production designer Thomas E. Sanders in which function follows form: there’s no real reason for there to be so many sharp points on the slats that form the wooden bridges between huts, but they still add to the general fairy tale atmosphere. Similarly, Cindy Evans’ costumes are believably patchwork without calling too much attention to themselves. There are minor elements here that still work. Unfortunately, they’re used in service of an undeserving whole. Red Riding Hood pretends to be a new spin on an old fable, but sadly, its tedium and weakness are all too familiar.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.