Well, it has been Thomas Harris-mania at my house, since I watched Manhunter and was super into it, then immediately wanted to watch this, another version of the same story, and now have Silence of the Lambs and then Hannibal coming. For those who have just joined us, Manhunter was adapted from the novel Red Dragon before Silence of the Lambs came out and established Hannibal Lecter the character and cemented Anthony Hopkins in the role, and then Hannibal was made, which was a bit of a bust, and then they thought they could scoop a few more dollars by using Hopkins to remake this film. There was another movie, Hannibal Rising, which covered the youth of Dr. Lecter, and which I was surprised to learn was actually based on a Harris novel, so I guess he's not immune to wanting to wring the most cash out of his success.
Upon putting the disc is I was horribly dismayed to see that this is already ten years old--and has a trailer for Ang Lee's FORTHCOMING Hulk--all of which made me feel horribly old, as it doesn't seem that long ago I was going to see this at the theater. We open at an orchestral performance, where we see Lecter in the audience, not liking a Flautist. Then there's a dinner for the orchestra board, and we are invited to imagine that Lecter is serving the fellow to his guests. It doesn't really work, it's too brief, but one has the sense they couldn't stand to just leave it out. Then suddenly Edward Norton as Will Graham shows up at Lecter's doorstep, and they chat. Lecter is a psychologist, and Graham is consulting him to help find a killer. Graham sees a cookbook among Lecter's things and suddenly realizes Lecter IS the killer--just in time to get attacked. But he shoots Lecter, and Lecter is arrested. Then we have the credits, which take the form of the 'psycho's scrapbook'--do all psychopathic killers really keep detailed scrapbooks? It would be hilarious to see some creepy introverted pervert keep showing up at the scrapbooking store at the mall--and this notebook is used to tell the whole story of Lecter being arrested, Will going into therapy and retiring from the FBI, etc. This replaces a rather prominent, and successful, conversation in Manhunter, which we'll come back to.
Anyway, so Will is now down in Florida with his wife Molly and son Josh, when Harvey Keitel shows up and wants him to consult on the case of a new serial killer. He talks to his wife about it, and goes. He goes to the houses and looks at the crime scenes, then goes back to his hotel, where we have flashes of the crime to illustrate Will's thought process. You see, Will is supposed to have the unique ability to enter into a killer's though process, and this makes him such a good detective. And here's where we have to stop and note the major points of comparison between this and Manhunter.
Manhunter was directed by Michael Mann and is very 80s, but Mann really knows how to make the 80s work for him, and what he wrings out of them is an insane amount of atmosphere. When Will talks to his wife, the whole scene is bathed in a cool blue. The houses of the victims are large, spare, white spaces, which Mann uses to contrast with the violence of the crimes in a way that creates an excellently disturbing frisson. The other thing is that William Peterson as Graham was able to seem genuinely haunted, and we could see him enter the killer's thought process simply by babbling to himself. Edward Norton is a fine actor, but he's actually quite limited by his voice and demeanor. The nasal quality of his voice just makes him sound snide and sarcastic. He also underplays, generally a good idea, but here he underplays to the point where he just seems disengaged. He has trouble seeming scared, and he certainly doesn't seem haunted in the least. The qualities that made him perfect for Fight Club--that sense of being smarter than everyone and secretly hating them all anyway--all work against him here, where he is supposed to seem warm but damaged. But when Manhunter was made, the series had not been established, and Mann and Peterson were free to do whatever they wanted. Here, this was required to fit seamlessly with the look and feel of Silence, and there was also increased pressure to remain faithful to Harris' book, so there were many more restrictions on what they had to work with. Of course, they also had access to a much larger budget and more high-profile actors. We now rejoin our story, already in progress.
So Will decides to go see Lecter in prison to see if he has any insight. Lecter is now in the same cell he was in in Silence of the Lambs, and many of the supporting cast are also gathered. They chat, and Hopkins does his thing where Lecter doesn't blink--fairly effective--but at a certain point I just started to see Hopkins' Lecter as an extended Bette Davis imitation, and I have to say that one took me a while to shake.
SPOILERS > > >
So at 40 minutes in we meet Francis Dolarhyde, our psycho, played by Ralph Fiennes. We learn that he lifts weights and was abused by his grandmother. We know that he smashes all the mirrors in his victim's houses, but here we see him working out near a bunch of intact mirrors, with one notable smashed one upstairs. It doesn't seem consistent. Soon he meets Emily Watson as Reba, blind photo technician. Reba gets a much fuller characterization here than she did in Manhunter, yet it's hard not to miss that moment of wonder when Dolarhyde realizes that she's blind and we can see that this tickles his particular fantasies. He gives her a ride home, she invites him in, and a few days later he takes her to feel an anesthetized tiger. Sadly, this version just doesn't have the creepy sensuality of the Manhunter version, but... um, is it me, or does Reba make a special point of feeling the tiger's cock?
In here there's a whole thing with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a reporter that we're going to skip, and soon we return to Dolarhyde with Reba. They sleep together, and in the morning we see him appealing to his print of this William Blake painting that inspired his whole Red Dragon thing (as you can imagine, Fountains of Wayne's "Red Dragon Tattoo" was running through my head this whole time), to allow him--his internal demon that he personifies in the painting--to spare Reba, saying "No, she's nice! She's okay!" Luckily, we have Ralph Fiennes in the role, and he can make this stuff work, as well as seem genuinely menacing and scary. And although the film sometimes lacks the creepiness of the earlier version, I appreciated the increased attention that Dolarhyde receives here.
But, differences there are. Here, Dolarhyde travels to the Brooklyn Museum (and by the way, that's not the real Brooklyn Museum) where he arranges to see the real Blake painting. Then he knocks out his attendant and EATS it! It's definitely bizarre, and effective, but we don't really know WHY it's happening. Later Graham has a throwaway line about "Maybe he's trying to defeat it (his internalized demon)," but that's not enough to make it really work, and it ends up being just another effective but disconnected scene. What Manhunter had that this one somehow doesn't is the sense that Dolarhyde meeting Reba was a random occurrence that might, quite surprisingly, end up reforming this killer. It was an unexpected, out of left-field element. Here it just kind of happens.
Another disappointment is that the BIG revelation that cracks the case--when Will realizes that Dolarhyde watched the same home movies he is watching--is downplayed he to the point where it's just another day at the office. Come on guys, there's nothing wrong with a bit of drama. They rush down and find Dolarhyde's house on fire, Reba inside. Dolarhyde seemingly kills himself and Reba is saved, case closed. By the way, this is where Manhunter chose to end, with Graham rushing (rather stupidly) into the crime scene and shooting Dolarhyde himself, so we can have satisfying drama. Here it still makes for a pretty good, sort of operatic ending, And I would have felt okay if it had ended here. BUT! There's more in store!
There is a moment where we see Will being allowed to read Dolarhyde's Psycho Scrapbook. Will's back home and all seems to be cool, when their son runs inside and doesn't come out. Will goes inside and sees a smashed mirror, just as Kietel is calling to tell him that Dolarhyde isn't really dead. On the deleted scenes we can see that they shot a scene where Dolarhyde appears to the son, but it was wisely excised as it is much more effective to go in and see that smashed mirror. Anyway, Will finds Dolarhyde with a knife to the kid's throat, and starts using some psychology from reading his Psycho Scrapbook, and you know, every time a psycho is defeated with psychology, you've got fun. Anyway, it devolves into a shootout, with Will eventually being downed and his wife delivering the final shots. This was interesting to me, drama-wise, because Manhunter has Graham doing a rather silly and stupid move that ultimately gets a number of otherwise safe cops killed, all so we can have the drama of WILL downing the killer himself. Here, it's his wife who finally takes the dude out, but it still works. Incidentally, in the book, apparently Dolarhyde cuts up Will's face, so he is disfigured like him, but we can't have that happen to our charming Edward Norton, can we?
< < < SPOILERS END
So I hadn't mentioned this yet, but this is directed by much-hated director Brett Ratner, purveyor of well-made crap, and the man who single-handedly destroyed all the work Bryan Singer had done in building up the X-Men series. And one has to ultimately admit that this is a solid, well-made mainstream movie with nearly every hair smoothed into place. What it lacks is inspiration. It's just a straightforward telling of a story, quite solid, but it doesn't have those creepy, artistic, unnerving elements that made Manhunter more than the sum of its parts.
The performances are good, given the restrictions of Norton noted above [he grows on one], but probably the best thing here is the script, by Ted Tally, who also wrote Silence of the Lambs. It’s just very carefully done in a way one appreciates… for example, the psychology Will uses on Dolarhyde wouldn’t work if we didn’t know Will had read the scrapbook, and if we hadn’t heard the kind of stuff IN the scrapbook way back toward the beginning. Also the wife’s sharpshooting by the end is set up for by showing Will giving her gun training in the middle. So it’s just a careful, well-done job.
One thing Manhunter did that I really missed here is that in that film we only hear that Will had a past with Lecter—we don’t see flashbacks to the past as open the film here—and in the middle of the film, Will’s son asks about his dad’s time in a mental institution. Will explains the whole situation with Lecter and how it messed with his mind. It provides a nice breather in the middle of the film, gives a lot of great detail about Will’s relationship with his son, and really cements our sympathy with Will, as well as giving us a great sense of his mental state and why he’s so haunted. It may be the scene that lingers most for me from that film. This film spells it all out and lets us see it—and is less rich for it. And that’s emblematic of the whole thing… it’s just less rich and textured all around.
On the other hand, it is more complete and fleshed-out. Ultimately, what we need to do is put both versions in the pods from The Fly and have them come out in a version fused at the genetic level, with the competence of this version and the deep, haunting, atmospheric nature of the first film.
If I had to choose, I’d say Lord, don’t make me choose.
MANHUNTER is a previously-made version of this story, with a lot of excellent atmosphere and haunted performances.