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Non-Review Review: Red Dragon

I have a confession to make: I don’t much care for Manhunter. I know I love the work of Michael Mann, but the film just left me cold. Maybe it’s Brian Cox’s stale performance as Hannibal, or the final action sequence choreographed to Inna Gadda Vida, but I don’t react well to the film. I loved the original book – I’d argue that Harris’ Red Dragon surpasses even The Silence of the Lambs as the greatest forensic thriller ever written – and, I have to confess, I certainly quite enjoyed Red Dragon.

Guess whose back...

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a classic. It’s a much better film than Ridley Scott’s take on Hannibal, but is nowhere near as brilliant as The Silence of the Lambs. However, it stands head and shoulders above most of the crop of “forensic thrillers” that the success of the earlier film spawned. Still, it never really sizzles and comes to life in the way that it should – which is disappointing, as the film features a fantastic cast (seriously, look at it!) and screenplay from Ted Tally, the screenwriter behind The Silence of the Lambs. However, the problem is simply that the movie really feels “pedestrian” – we’ve seen all of this before.

For those not familiar with the movie, it’s a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, only the third movie ever to win the “big five” Oscars. It follows the capture of Hannibal Lecter and the subsequent case investigated by forensic profiler Will Graham. Of course, Graham is hunting another serial killer, “the tooth fairy”, but he can’t crack the case. At least not by himself. He requires some help, which leads to an extended supporting role for Sir Anthony Hopkins – though it’s perhaps for the best it’s supporting, as he worked at his best in the original film with twenty-four minutes of screentime (the shortest role to win the Best Actor award). That said, Lecter is arguable much more involved than he needs to be (and much more than he was in the book), but we can forgive such things with Anthony Hopkins.

Lecter here is much less of an antihero – in fact, I was decidedly uncomfortable with the attempts of Hannibal (both the novel and the film) to paint the cannibal as some sort of weird anti-hero who only preys on those who deserve it (even though he was known to prey of college students and a flutist who played poorly – an act we get to see here). Yes, Lecter is a genius with a keen insight into the human mind, but here he’s also a petty and spiteful man. Note how he manages to strike back at the man who captured him, even while he converses casually and trades compliments. Indeed, despite comments he won’t be swayed by “appeals to his intellectual vanity”, he can’t throw away a letter because “it’s full of compliments”. Sure, Lecter “prefers to eat the rude”, but he’s still a vicious manipulative serial killer.

That doesn’t change the fact that Hopkins is good here. In fact, his performance is almost as good as in The Silence of the Lambs. The difference, as with the rest of the film, is that it has become old hat – and that the director doesn’t have half the talent of Demme. I don’t share the same hatred of Brett Ratner that most of my on-line brethren do. In fact, I think he’s a fairly okay director of standard studio nonsense – nothing special. However, he simply doesn’t have the skill necessary to bring a project like this to the screen in the style it deserved.

Keeping Lecter on a leash...

Demme consciously favoured intimacy – tight shots, often with actors addressing the camera as if in an interview – a brave stylistic choice which paid off. Ratner doesn’t make anything resembling a stylistic choice. In fact, the movie is as stalely choreographed as an average episode of CSI (which is ironic, given William Peterson himself played the lead in the earlier version of this film). Nothing shows a hint of a unified artistic vision for the project, just an attempt to get the story from the page to the screen in the most clinical way possible. Note, for example, a scene where Graham traverses a murder scene. He walks into the bedroom, and there’s blood – everywhere! A suggestion of the atrocity committed here. A braver film would allow the image to stand on its own, but here the orchestra goes wild – “this is a scary moment!” the strings seem to be screaming in tones too shrill from us to decypher.

Which is interesting, because there are moments when the film seems to almost want to be a gothic horror – perhaps reflecting the American gothic of the Jonathon Demme film. Notice the Danny Elfman soundtrack, the grotesque yet impressive bodyart on Francis Dolarhyde or even the external shots of the killer’s creepy turn-of-the-century house, glowing like something sinister in the darkness. Of course, these shots and ideas are fleeting and most – the killer’s obsession with Blake, for example – are carried over from the book, but they speak to a far deeper film than the one which made it to the screen.

Still, I enjoy it. Edward Norton’s Will Graham is far more introspective than Manhunter’s William Peterson version, but it’s a dignified performance. By far the strongest improvement between this version and the earlier film version of the same book – undoubtedly spurred by the way that “Buffalo Bill” has made his way into popular culture – is the focus on Francis Dolarhyde, here played almost perfectly by Ralph Fiennes. He’s never fully sympathetic, but is a pitiable creation (or would be if we didn’t know what he’s capable of). The film doesn’t really “juggle” his subplot well, following the more linear structure of the book: we follow Graham and Crawford, and then we spend about forty minutes with Dolarhyde and then we’re back to Graham. The approach worked in the book, but here it almost seems like two films competing for space.

Still, Fiennes is amazing and the script is mostly solid. Check out supporting turns from a cast including Mary Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, Ken Leung, Frankie Feason and Anthony Heald, among others. There’s a coda that I really didn’t think was necessary (again, it seems to scream for your attention – “we’re related to a beloved film! love us by extension!”), but mostly it’s well done. Lecter gets those fantastic lines and even Graham gets his moments – when he outlines Lecter’s “certain disadvantages”, it’s a great moment. And, as a fan of the book, I appreciate the fidelity to the ending – even if Harris’ twist really worked better on the page (it’s hard not to “see” it coming – if you’ll pardon the pun – on the screen).

Still, great writing and great acting help elevate the film above the pack. It’s a shame that it feels so tired, coming – as it does – after the spate of Hollywood “serial killer thrillers” and from the hands of a director who seems to lack a decisive vision. Still, I enjoyed it – perhaps more than I should have. You can do a lot worse than taking this opportunity to visit Doctor Lecter.

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