The story of Little Red Riding Hood lends itself quite easily to sub-textual readings. The most common and obvious one is that the Big Bad Wolf represents the beast that is male sexuality, and the moral of the story is that nice girls shouldn't go walking in the woods alone with strange men. Certainly that reading of the tale figures into director Katherine Hardwicke's RED RIDING HOOD, but the film recognizes it's only half of the equation. Female sexuality is a powerful force in its own right, and nice girls don't necessarily have to be forced or tricked into losing their innocence; they can be willing co-conspirators. Just because there is consent, however, doesn't mean there isn't still an element of fear.
That's certainly the case with the film's heroine Valerie (Amanda Seyfried). Ever since she was a child, Valerie has spent time alone in the woods with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) doing things she wasn't supposed to be doing. Now young adults, when the two learn that Valerie has been promised in marriage to the well-to-do Henry (Max Irons) they plot to run away together. Before eloping, and with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, the young lovers start to get intimate when they are interrupted by the howl of a wolf. It's almost as if the creature has been summoned forth by their actions.
The film takes pains to address the ways society values women and seeks to control their sexuality. For example, Valerie's older sister is genuinely in love with Henry, but it is Valerie who gets offered up for an arranged marriage to the man because she is“the pretty one”. The girls' mother Suzette (Virgina Madsen) tells Valerie it's for her own good. She says that she herself married Valerie's father Cesaire (Billy Burke) despite being in love with another man, and everything worked out just fine. But like many of the characters in RED RIDING HOOD, Suzette is hiding a secret.
Chief among those secrets is the identity of the wolf. This is no ordinary lupine, but a werewolf. For 13 years, the beast has left the people of Valerie's village alone as long as they provided it with the occasional pig or chicken. Now the truce has been broken, with Valerie's sister the first victim. In order to combat the supernatural assailant, the parish priest calls upon Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) for help. Before you can say The Crucible, Solomon is asking everyone if they are now or ever have been a member of the lycanthrope party.
Thanks to the way the film gives equal weight to the sexual power of both genders, the pool of suspects isn't limited to just the men. Anyone could be the wolf, even Grandma (Julie Christie). It's this aspect of the plot that eventually undermines the dreamlike tone Hardwicke has established in favor of by-the-numbers “who dunnit” cliches and a net-full of red herrings. When we finally get to the big reveal, we're hit with a huge exposition dump that stops the movie dead in its tracks.
This isn't the kind of movie that requires acting so much as it does iconic presences, and in that respect Seyfried is perfectly cast, exuding innocence and sexuality in equal measure. And it probably goes without saying that Oldman, Madsen, and Christie are more than capable of handling any part thrown their way. The same can not be said for either of Seyfried's potential love interests in the film, with Irons in particular coming off as bland to the point of somnabulence. Fernandez isn't much better but at least shows some signs of life.
No, it's not a great movie, but despite its shortcomings RED RIDING HOOD is better than you'd expect. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and taken at face value there's some schlocky fun to be had here. At the same time Hardwicke and screenwriter David Johnson manage to sneak some fairly complex, perhaps even challenging ideas (at least by modern Hollywood standards) into a bit of fluff aimed at the teenage “date night” audience. Whether most will notice or not is debatable, but at least the material is there for those who do. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.