Pleased to Eat You
Hannibal the Cannibal returns
Director Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter marked the first screen appearance by cannibalizing serial killer Hannibal Lecter (played then by actor Brian Cox). It’s an exceedingly intense thriller, but like Mann’s other hit of the era, TV’s Miami Vice, it suffers in retrospect from terribly dated art direction. Shot through a blue filter, with a low buzz humming underneath even the quietest scenes, the film practically screams “New Wave.” Looking at Miami Vice today, there’s an undeniable campiness to Don Johnson’s stubble and white jacket; similarly, Manhunter’s neon lighting and synth-pop score detract from the horrific story beneath.
That fact (along with the moneymaking opportunity to employ Anthony Hopkins for a third time as Lecter) made Manhunter ripe for an update. While not technically a remake, Red Dragon is based on the same source material, Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name. Comparisons are inevitable, not only to Manhunter, but also to The Silence of the Lambs, the second book in the Hannibal Lecter trilogy.
A prequel to the 1991’s Academy-Award-winning The Silence of the Lambs, the action in The Red Dragon precedes that of the former film by several years. Even the least astute of viewers will notice similarities between the two. In The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster played FBI agent Clarice Starling, who turned to the imprisoned Lecter for help in capturing a deranged serial killer. In Red Dragon, Ed Norton plays FBI agent Will Graham, who turns to the imprisoned Lecter for help in capturing a deranged serial killer. There are, however, a few important distinctions. Most significantly, it’s Graham who put Lecter behind bars in the first place.
That showdown constitutes the film’s opening moments, and sets the stage for the spine-tingling action to come. Lecter, a leading behavioral psychiatrist, is advising Graham in his hunt for a vicious serial killer nicknamed “The Chesapeake Clipper,” so named for his habit of removing certain body parts and organs from his victims. The trail has taken an unexpected turn with Graham’s recent conclusion that the killer is eating his victims. Armed with this new information, it’s only a matter of time before the trail leads to his respected counselor’s door. As the opening credits roll, a montage of newspaper and tabloid clippings detail the months and years following Lecter’s arrest: Lecter is sentenced to life in the Baltimore Psychiatric hospital, and Graham takes a brief trip to a psych ward of his own before retiring to Florida with his wife and son.
A pair of gruesome multiple homicides pull Graham grudgingly back into the game. An astute investigator, he operates by attempting to think exactly like the killers he hunts, a dangerous thing to do. When his tactics fail, he reluctantly seeks out the advice of his former advisor.
In a scene brimming with deja vu, Graham squares off with Lecter, through the heavy glass wall of his cell, to request advice on the new case. Despite being caged, Lecter maintains the upper hand, demonstrating his superior intelligence by answering in riddles. In a prelude to his future conversations with Clarice Starling, he even insults Graham’s cologne, dismissing it as the scent of a poor man.
Throughout the film, and in this scene in particular, Norton brings the same doe-eyed vulnerability to his role that made Foster so compelling in hers. For his part, Hopkins appears to have rethought his ridiculously over-the-top performance in Hannibal. Here, he reigns in the grandiose flamboyance and reverts back to the calculated, sinister approach that won him an Academy Award his first time out as Lecter.
Rather than aid his captor, Lector devises a plan to help the new killer, who’s been dubbed the “Tooth Fairy” by the press thanks to his penchant for biting his victims. Meanwhile, the killer, a timid loner named Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), begins a hesitant romance with a blind co-worker, Reba (Emily Watson).
In a major deviation from Manhunter, viewers here are given much more background information on Dolarhyde, including a glimpse at his childhood and a hint at the psychology behind his actions. Deeply disturbed from years of physical and emotional abuse, Dolarhyde believes the murders he commits are helping him undergo a “transformation.” As played by Fiennes in a stunning performance, Dolarhyde is a hulking, tattooed mass of raging hormones and repressed rage, all hidden beneath the most unassuming, mildest-mannered of facades.
It’s this frightening duality that makes his affair with the unassuming Reba all the more unsettling. When he takes her to his place (changed here from the from the modern, bizarrely-decorated ranch home of Manhunter to a more fitting, abandoned nursing home), the horror stems from the naive bliss she experiences, completely unaware of the true nature of her surroundings. As they get to know one another, the stilted, yet unmistakably erotic tension between the two is truly terrifying.
Having possibly learned a lesson from Ridley Scott’s poorly conceived Hannibal, writer/director Brett Ratner returns to the winning formula that made The Silence of the Lambs a success. But despite Ratner’s insistence that Red Dragon would be a completely different film than Manhunter, it’s actually very similar (how could it not be, really?). Combined, these two facts lend the movie a somewhat familiar feel, which lessens the “gotcha” factor ever so slightly. Still, with an explosive new climax that harkens back to the spine-tingling finale of The Silence of the Lambs, this grizzly potboiler is guaranteed to have plenty of people hovering on the edge of their seats. Or, in the case of the extremely squeamish, screaming for the exits.
Michael Rucker writes about film for HX and Empire magazines. He is also a regular contributor to Gay City News.