I saw this once way back in the day, when it didn't impress me, but it's been on my list since then, since it's supposed to be so good. This, as surely you know, is an adaptation of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, which introduced Hannibal Lecter (here Lecktor) and was done before Silence of the Lambs came out and cemented Anthony Hopkins in the role. Then after this was remade under its original title with Hopkins and Ed Norton, which was okay but undistinguished. And so there you go. This was written and directed by Michael Mann, who brings his familiar 80s chic and well-chosen pop music to the proceedings, where they both work.
We open with a nice, spooky prologue in which we see video images of a flashlight looking around a house, finally settling on a sleeping couple, who slowly wake to discover an intruder in their house. Then we introduce William Petersen as Will Graham, FBI agent who brought Lecktor in, but it messed with his mind so bad he had to retire. He is asked to come back by Dennis Farina as Jack, who shows him pictures of two families that were killed by the same person. Graham thinks about it while in his blue-saturated house with his wife, as the moody electronic score does its job. All pretty effective so far! Of course Graham takes the job.
Graham goes to walk through one of the houses where a murder took place. We see him talking to himself and constructing the killer's thoughts. This movie was, I think, the first to introduce the whole "enter the mind of a serial killer" conceit, which was mimicked in later movies during the whole serial killer craze the followed in Silence of the Lambs' wake. By now you've noticed that Mann is setting the domestic scenes in big, sterile modern white spaces, which he is able to use to create an off-kilter sense of menace. Petersen also has a bit of the Ryan Gosling in him, with his sly, low-key intensity and haunted demeanor. It's all working so far!
Graham needs to pay a visit to Lecktor in order to get into that ol' serial killer vibe, but without a sense of how the character of Lecktor is going to develop, he's a little bit of an extraneous element here. Brian Cox takes him on and delivers a very different interpretation than Hopkins', which is also effective. There's a chilling little scene in which we see Lecktor handily get Will's real address in just a few seconds. Then a note from the killer at large, known as the Tooth Fairy, is found in Lecktor's cell--they're writing each other! There's a nice long procedural sequence as they try to gather all the evidence they can from the note in three hours, before they have to return it to Lecktor's cell. There was a piece missing from the note, and when they finally discover it, it turns out to be Will's home address, with instructions to kill his wife and son.
Now I recall that Red Dragon ended with the killer in Will's home, but here they are whisked to a safe location, and I don't know which was the ending as represented in the novel. I suspect that's the original ending, since when this was made, there was no urgency to remain adherent to Harris' novel, and the ending they have on this movie stinks of being a movie ending. Anyway, the wife and kid are whisked away to Montana, and Will has a nice scene with his son in which he explains his history with Lecktor, and how he had to take some time in a mental hospital after that. The setting of this scene in a grocery story allows it to be genuine and appealingly mundane, while also allowing us ample time to take in all the brand names that have paid for inclusion. You don't have to have taken a screenwriting course to know that this scene marks the end of part one, and now the hunt for this killer is seriously ON.
SPOILERS > > >
Now we break our point of view and start hanging out with the killer, Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde. Those who know Noonan from Wolfen or as the best thing about House of the Devil will know that he's perfectly cast, as there is just a spooky otherworldly quality to him. He is at this film processing plant where he meets a woman, and we can see him becoming intrigued when he realizes that she is blind. She is Reba, played by Joan Allen, who had a burst of popularity in the 90s. He takes her to feel a paralyzed tiger, which is one of the more creative, subtly weird and creepy scenes, and shining example of what Harris does so well. Dollarhyde takes her home, where she comes on to him and they end up having sex. We are meant to think that maybe this serial killer will simply settle down and find a good woman, that love can heal his raging psychic wounds, and for a while that looks like it may be the case. You have to admit that's a fairly ingenious twist, and goes far to humanize this killer.
Meanwhile Will has decided no more half-measures, he has to enter the mind of a serial killer! No matter how it may damage his own psyche! Once more we see him wandering around stark white modernist houses. It all goes on, and his boss is ready to give up when--the crucial clue! And it leads them straight to Dollarhyde. He, meanwhile, has seen Reba with another man and assumed she is some kind of visually-impaired slut, some kind of blind temptress, and taken her back to his place for some murder. Interestingly, Mann is sure to include a little cut that lets us know that Reba is actually innocent, and not a non-sighted cock tease. Dollarhyde terrorizes her as the police mass outside.
Now here's what I think is the replacement movie ending, and an ending that I think is a bit of a dud, given how good everything else has been. They get to the house, and Will starts approaching it through the woods, despite repeated instructions that he wait for backup. He sees Allen about to be killed, and instead of simply plugging Dollarhyde from a safe distance, as he could easily do, he decides that the most logical course of action would be to run directly at the killer, in full view, and smash through the window, somehow knowing that it's movie glass and will NOT cut him to ribbons. I'd like some research on how many people in real life smash through windows, thinking from what they've seen in movies that they will remain completely unscathed. Anyway, Will's idiotic action accomplishes nothing, and directly results in several police officers getting killed, something I probably wouldn't even have noticed if not for my Sergeant friend who has pointed out police disposability in movies. Anyway, finally Will takes out his gun and plugs the killer. The end. I mean, I get that Will needs to confront the killer directly, and bring him down himself, in order for the ending to be satisfying to movie audiences, it's just that the solution they came to is a bit silly, gets several officers needlessly killed, and cheapens the whole movie that came before it (not THAT much, but still) and, it's just too bad, given how good it was til then.
< < < SPOILERS END
Overall, really good! Harris' story is relatively ingenious, and has to get the credit for the bulk of what's happening here. The whole concept of serial killers in contact with each other was new and creepy, as was the idea of a detective skirting the edge of sanity by empathizing with a killer, and the way in which this one man sets all these others dancing to his tune. Then the fairly believable and intriguing imagining of the motivations of serial killers, and ingenious idea to have him nearly diverted from killing, at least temporarily, by a romance. So I think Harris has to get the lion's share of credit. What Mann brings is a very appropriate and consistent sense of atmosphere for the story to unfold in, with the electronic soundtrack and empty modernist houses, and a slow, meditative pace that keeps the emphasis on Will's troubled psyche and the somber mood of knowing a killer is out there who will strike again.
So overall, a hit! A nice, atmospheric serial killer film with depth and a great overall mood. Too bad about that ending, but that's a small complaint.
You sure should.