"Have you ever looked at blood in the moonlight, Will? It appears quite black."
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The words were spoken through a set of steel bars stretched from floor to ceiling and alternated with plates of strong plexiglas. The man who spoke them sat on a cot in an eight-by-six-foot prison cell, staring intently at his visitor, seated on the other side of the bars. The prisoner is Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, psychiatric genius and serial murderer. The visitor is Will Graham, retired FBI agent and the man who captured Lecter.
Lecter has just given Graham what may or may not have been a vital clue to a murder case. The confrontation, forty minutes into the film, is the key to finding the murderer...and sets in motion a frightening rollercoaster ride of terror for Graham and his family. Even behind bars, Dr. Lecter is still dangerous...
Michael Mann, the creator of Miami Vice and the Oscar-nominated director of The Insider, made this eerie, tension-wrought thriller between the two. Based on the very scary novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (author of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, both made into acclaimed movies), Manhunter (1986, rated R) introduced to the world Hannibal Lecter, and the film stealthily helped to usher in a new genre of horror films: the serial killer movie.
I have to argue, against the hordes of Thomas Harris fanatics who are sometimes compelled to sample liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti, that Manhunter is superior to Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs. I have read all three of the Lecter novels and seen all the films based on them, and of all the movie adaptations of Harris's works, this one is somehow more entrancing. Perhaps it's Mann's glaring, whispery-cold directing style, sucking you down some dark river into a whirlpool of violence and psychological terror that pulls at you like the current of the undertow. Maybe it's Dante Spinotti's nightmarish photography, tinted in pale blue hues and slimy green highlights that suggests that the entire film is reflecting the wormy, fetid mind of the serial killer that Will Graham is pursuing, or maybe even Graham's own tormented psyche. Then again, perhaps it's because of Mann's unsettling visuals, the terrific actors, and the piercing, malevolent musical score.
Whatever. I like this one a lot better than Demme's Oscar- winning Silence and Ridley Scott's gruesome Hannibal. It's a much better movie for whatever reason makes it so good.
The gist of the plot is this: Two happy families are butchered in their sleep on consecutive full moons. The FBI, investigating the case, sees no apparent motive and has very few clues. In desperation, the FBI turns to the only man who may help them find the killer, retired agent Will Graham. Graham has a curious talent for tracking down serial killers, but the last one, Hannibal Lecter, nearly killed him. Graham lives in the Florida Keys with his wife (Kim Greist) and son, and he's reluctant to go back to his old life. But he's too good to pass this one up.
Graham, played by a young William Peterson, is a typical burned-out cop haunted by demons he quietly controls with drink. But his methods are not typical at all; Graham likes to visit crime scenes in order to retrace the killer's steps, thereby learning how the killer thinks. Evidently gifted with a form of psychic empathy, he is able to think like the murderer, thereby coming closer to figuring out the motive and unmasking his identity (Harris visited the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico, Virginia, and Graham seems modeled after John Douglas, celebrity FBI profiler). Peterson, who currently stars in NBC's crime series CSI, is the main attraction of the film; small in stature and delicate in features, he's nonetheless a strong, compelling figure. You immediately identify with him, hanging on to every step he takes (Peterson seems to have drawn upon his experience in this movie for his work in CSI).
The FBI is represented by Section Chief Jack Crawford, ably played by Dennis Farina, a granite-faced no-nonsense type who was seen in Out of Sight and The Mod Squad. He and Graham spearhead the hunt for the killer, dubbed the "Tooth Fairy" by the Atlanta police (the film makes vague references to homophobia, which are more defined in the book). But there's a problem: A sleazy tabloid reporter,
Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang, all puffy hair and flesh), who hounds their every step for the big scoop (boy, this movie invites contempt for the press like no other, particularly later, when Freddy meets a terrible end) and unwittingly draws the killer's attention toward Graham.
Graham, however, has been out of the loop for a while, and he needs to get the hunter's mindset back. So he pays a visit to arguably the best help he could think of: Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who's languishing in a prison for the criminally insane. The meeting is creepy in its writhing intimacy and well-handled by Mann. Lecter (curiously misspelled as "Lecktor" in the film) is played by Scottish actor Brian Cox, and his performance is a fascinating parallel to Anthony Hopkin's take on the mad doctor. With his cold, dead eyes and leery, hypnotic stare, Cox brings a malevolent charm to Lecter, particularly when he smooths his way into finding out Graham's home address and then ingeniously manages to leak the information to the killer, who has written a fan letter to Lecter.
We meet the killer later, after having taken care of Freddy Lounds in the wake of a searing confrontation with him over a very insulting article in the tabloid. Francis Dolarhyde (the name just rolls right off your tongue) is a big, ugly man with a cleft palate who has been savagely abused as a child. Tom Noonan brings a geeky, intellectually-infused performance to Dolarhyde that is technically accomplished,
yet oddly muted. In fact, the scenes with him are some of the weakest, as we watch him mull over his murderous obsessions and then slowly begin to fall in love with a blind film developer (Joan Allen in an early role). I admit that I had a hard time watching his love scenes with any sort of credibility, especially since this guy has just killed entire families without a single iota of remorse. But Noonan somehow pulls it off, even bringing a degree of sympathy to Dolarhyde, as Harris did in the book.
But then the movie finally finds itself again, as Graham finally identifies the killer in a scene that's gripping in its intensity and numbing in its revelation. The climax, rife with gunshots and blood and shattered glass, puts the whole affair to rights and resolves Graham's twisted relationship with Lecter.
Mann's handling of Red Dragon is faithful, despite some minor details, so readers of the book will probably find this movie commendable. Some may find it distasteful in a few areas, even over-styled (Mann's visuals seem transported verbatim from Miami Vice, giving the movie a pastel-colored flavor that seemed to typify the Eighties), but I defy you to find another film that will dig its fingers into the back of your neck and squeeze. Manhunter is the sort of film that may stay with you for a long time. It has with me.
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