Hannibal Lecter has become an iconic figure, the embodiment of sophisticated evil. While it was The Silence of the Lambs that brought Lecter his status, many people do not realize our wicked cannibal psychiatrist made his literary and cinematic debut in another project. Manhunter, the first cinematic version of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, has been lost in the shuffle of Lecter-related work. While it is a bit dated and more interested in style than substance, there is enough in Manhunter to make it worth a viewing.
Former FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) reluctantly comes out of retirement to just consult on a new serial killer case. His former boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) needs Graham's help on a gruesome case the FBI agents nickname "The Tooth Fairy" for the killer's penchant of biting his victims.
Graham works methodically, but the Tooth Fairy case is connected to his last case. That case nearly killed him and left him emotionally traumatized. The Tooth Fairy case brings him full circle, as he has to confront Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), the cannibal who nearly killed Graham last time. Lecktor may have insight into the Tooth Fairy case, but he isn't about to let a chance to get back at Graham go by.
As a side note, Manhunter opted to change the spelling from "Lecter" to "Lecktor".
The actual Tooth Fairy, after a lot of detective work, is eventually identified as socially awkward Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), who has already killed Graham's nemesis, tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang) as part of Lecktor's revenge. It's a race now to save both Graham's wife and son from Lecktor's machinations and Dollarhyde's blind coworker Rita (Joan Allen), the Tooth Fairy's next potential victim.
There is not much in Manhunter to suggest it is anything more than a B-Movie with suggestions of creepiness but not much in terms of gore. This is actually a plus in writer/director Michael Mann's adaptation, as he resists the temptation to be graphic in terms of the on-screen violence. Even the moments that suggest horror (like a scene where a tween accidentally sees crime photos) are quite restrained.
Whether this is what audiences want or not I cannot guess at, but Manhunter is not interested in the crimes themselves, let alone the gory details. Instead, it is meant as an exploration of Will Graham's tortured psyche. Perhaps that explains why Petersen is restrained and almost passive in Manhunter, displaying a man who doesn't display much.
As played by Petersen, Will Graham is a still man, one who doesn't want to let the past haunt him but which still does. I think people may find him a bit emotionalless and remote, but I think this is how the character is meant to be. As such, his general passivity works.
Manhunter may also disappoint Lecter fans because the bad doctor does not feature prominently in the film. It takes a good twenty-three minutes for him to even appear, and Cox doesn't play him as a major threat, let alone a psychopathic criminal genius. Instead, Cox makes Lecktor into the cliché of someone who thinks he is a psychopathic criminal genius.
A lot of the performances in Manhunter are surprisingly quiet, stripped of grandiose manners. Up to a point this is good, but at times it seems unrealistic. Kim Greist as Will's wife Molly seems merely slightly perturbed at having to hide out with her son to avoid the dangerous Tooth Fairy. There's little to suggest anger or fear, merely inconvenience.
I think it is because Manhunter is more interested in the investigation: the forensics, the actual detective work, than it is in plunging into both the horrors of Lecktor and Dollarhyde or the psychological toll on the FBI agents. Manhunter is quite respectful of how the note from the Tooth Fairy to Lecktor is quickly investigated.
Manhunter is also a film that is awash with visual splendor: deep blues and greens dominate the film, along with a synthesizer score and songs that make it play like a Miami Vice spinoff. One senses that Mann was trying to go for some great visual moment, but the concluding confrontation between Graham and Dollarhyde to Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida didn't feel as cinematic as he wanted it to. The visuals also become dominant when Dollarhyde spies Rita with a fellow coworker. He sees something almost erotic, while the reality shows something quite innocent.
If one thinks on Manhunter, some things just seem so odd. Rita opting to make love to Dollarhyde make her look like a tramp (and despite her work, the casting of the sighted Allen would now be called "problematic"). It doesn't seem to fit, as does Lounds' harassment of Graham and his abduction.
Manhunter feels and looks like an 80's film. This isn't a slam on it, just an acknowledgment that it is a bit dated now. However, it isn't a bad film and has a nice visual style that can be appreciated.
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