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Non-Review Review: Hannibal

I actually have a bit of a soft spot for Hannibal. I think the key to enjoying and appreciating Ridley Scott’s 2001 serial-killer film is to realise that it’s a fundamentally different animal to The Silence of the Lambs, to the point where it isn’t really a sequel – despite featuring many of the same characters and considerably fewer of the same actors. Those expecting a faithful follow-up or conclusion will be disappointed, as will those who fell in love with Jonathan Demme’s delightfully understated The Silence of the Lambs. Even the title character here seems to lack the complexity he demonstrated in that earlier instalment, instead acting like the villain of a slasher film cast in the unlikely role of an anti-hero.

Still, despite these flaws, Hannibal is quite entertaining (if far too uneven and unsatisfying) on its own terms.

She looks good enough to eat…

What had been nuanced and sophisticated in The Silence of the Lambs suddenly becomes loud and overstated. We’re not just talking about the graphic horror here. (Although Hannibal does feature one of the most weirdly gratuitous graphic horror scenes in recent memory.) Even the themes, characters and subtext are all grossly over-simplified, to the point where it seems very little is actually left to the viewer to interpret or to judge on their own terms.

Consider, for example, the plight of Special Agent Clarice Starling, perhaps the biggest single problem with the film. Despite the fact that everybody came out of The Silence of the Lambs talking about Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambswas very clearly the story of Clarice Starling finding her place in the FBI and helping to track down a serial killer. Lecter only appeared on-screen for under half-an-hour, and somehow managed to dominate the film. Still, it was Clarice with whom we emotionally connected, and in whom we emotionally invested.

Victim on the Verger of a nervous breakdown…

In Hannibal, Clarice feels a lot less important. She’s really just an object of Lecter’s affections. In fact, the cartoonishly evil Mason verger explicitly targets Clarice as a means of getting at Hannibal. “When the Fox hears the Rabbit scream he comes a-runnin’,” Mason explains, “but not to help.” The problem is that this really denies Clarice her own arc. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is assisted by Lecter, but she is the one who makes the logical connections that drive the plot forward and eventually lead to Jame Gumb.

Here, Clarice appears as a much less compelling and a much less dynamic character. The most dynamic things that she does over the course of the movie involve (a.) tracking down the personal phone number of an Italian police officer and (b.) deducting that the ridiculously evil!Mason Verger must be connected with the abduction of Hannibal Lecter. Recast from Jodie Foster to Julianne Moore, it’s a massive disappointment to see the character diminished in such a way. Moore is a great actress in her own right, but she’s an ill fit for Starling.

Man about town…

Consider and contrast how Moore and Foster portray Starling coping with institutionalised sexism. Foster rather wonderfully polite and amicable dismissals of Frederick Chilton are rather wonderful character moments. Moore’s interactions with Ray Liotta’s Paul Krendler lack any of that nuance. “I wasn’t speaking to you, Mr. Krendler,” she advises him. “When I speak to you, you’ll know it because I’ll look at you.” Foster would have delivered the line in a matter-of-fact way with a very clear subtext, but one that concealed a fairly obvious hatred. Moore’s line-reading makes it seem a small wonder she hasn’t reached across the table to choke him.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the subtext about Clarice’s position in a world dominated by men is far less subtle this time around. Her first scene has her verbally smacking down local law enforcement, who seem a bit uncomfortable taking orders from a woman. Later on, she receives a letter, “It’s from the Guinness Book of World Records congratulating me on being “The Female FBI Agent Who Has Shot The Most People.”

Ready for a Lecter lecture?

While The Silence of the Lambs got the point across rather well with a few silent shots of Clarice in a field dominated by men (that single fantastic shot of the tiny Jodie Foster in an elevator packed with massive men), Hannibal labours the point ridiculously – to the point where it seems to be the only angle on Clarice as a character. She’s surrounded by men who objectify her, with Paul Krendler dismissing her as “cornpone country pussy” while giggling at obscene doodles, and even the Italian Agent Benetti, who has never seen her, draws naked images of her.

It seems that every man in Hannibal who isn’t Lecter himself is some sort of deviant, pervert or sexist. (Even Barney, the polite nurse who worked on the ward and who tends to dead pigeons, is revealed as something of a profiteer, selling stolen Lecter merchandise.) Krendler is, of course, the most obvious example. “I always figured him for a queer,” Krendler states of Lecter. “All this artsy-fartsy stuff.  Chamber music and tea-party food.  Not that I mean anything personal, if you’ve got a lot of sympathy for those people.” What a nice man.

A-paul-ing behavior…

It seems that, between The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, all the decent men in Clarice’s life have disappeared, replaced by sexist and homophobic stereotypes. Where are are the science nerds she used to hang out with? Since Scott Glen refused to reprise the role of Jack Crawford, Crawford is absent from the movie. Of course, there’s a reason for this attempt to isolate Starling – the movie is very clearly trying to position Hannibal as the most decent man in Clarice’s life. It seems just a bit disingenuous, especially given how manipulative and passive-aggressive he was to her in The Silence of the Lambs, even after she’d gained his respect.

So, with a much simplified Clarice Starling, Hannibal exists without a real emotional anchor. After all, it’s very tough to make us care about Hannibal Lecter, or to allow us to understand him. We might find him charming, and empathise with him more than we do with anyone else, but he’s still somewhat inscrutable. Then again, the script makes the somewhat dubious decision to try to cast Lecter as something of an anti-hero. Not only is the only man in Clarice’s life who seems to genuinely care about her, but he’s also retroactively cast as something of a romantic hero, a character who uses disgusting methods, but against those who deserve it.

The inspector is a little tied up at the moment…

“He said that whenever possible,” Barney recalls of Lecter, “he preferred to eat the rude.” There’s even an attempt to recast his brutal escape from the Memphis Police Department in The Silence of the Lambs. “They weren’t civil to him,” Barney states. “And they’re all dead now.” That’s a bit funny, because I recall them being much more civil than Chilton ever was. They respected his artwork and were careful not to disturb anything belonging to him. He killed them all because they got in his way, and he would have killed them no matter how they acted towards him. Still, that doesn’t suit the film’s reimagining of Lecter, so it gets omitted.

Clarice suggests that Lecter was motivated to kill and eat “to show his contempt for those who exasperate him, I think. Or, sometimes, to perform a public service.” It does portray Lecter as something of an anti-hero. Certainly, he spends a lot of Hannibal killing people who would never be missed. He kills pick-pockets, crooks, mercenaries and creepy child abusers. The most innocent victim mentioned during the film would seem to be his predecessor in Florence, but it’s only fleetingly touched upon. When we do revisit the one survivor of Lecter’s assaults, it’s the monstrous Mason Verger who seeks to hunt down Hannibal.

A free Mason?

Even though Verger is the most cartoonishly vile character ever imagined, the movie is still careful in its portrayal of Hannibal’s assault on him. We don’t see Lecter being excessively brutal in dealing with the child molester. Instead, he dopes him up on a “popper”, and has Verger carve his own face off. Like Thomas Harris, the movie carefully ignores any characterisation or past history that might suggest Lecter was an unrepentant psychotic murderer. Harris has never, for example, really acknowledged the college coed victims he mentioned in passing in Red Dragon all those years ago.

And then there’s the weird relationship between Lecter and Clarice. There’s no denying that, in The Silence of the Lambs, he was fascinated by her. However, Hannibal takes that relationship and heightens it ridiculously. Unlike the book, the film acknowledges that to have Clarice run off with Hannibal might be too much, and that it would be too great a betrayal of her character, but it also seems to suggest that Clarice is somehow the less objective or sane of the pair.

One Fell swoop…

Hannibal repeatedly points out how misplaced her faith in the Bureau is. “Would they have you back, you think?” he goads her at one point. “The FBI? Those people you despise almost as much as they despise you. Would they give you a medal, Clarice, do you think? Would you have it professionally framed and hang it on your wall to look at and remind you of your courage and incorruptibility? All you need for that, Clarice, is a mirror.” He is, of course, correct – and the movie is never sure how Clarice should respond to that. The end result is that Clarice appears as this incredibly weak and indecisive figure, without the courage to embrace her psychotic par amour, while Lecter seems like this tragic romantic lead.

In fact, the final sequence of the film cements this view of the relationship, as Clarice handcuffs herself to Lecter to hold the criminal in place. Now Clarice is between Lecter and his freedom – just like the Memphis Police Department. The object seems to be to place Lecter in a situation where he is forced to either surrender or to harm Clarice. In the end, he takes a third option – one that seems to prove to the audience that he reallydoes love her and that Clarice fundamentally misunderstands him. Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer cannibal, is the poor noble victim in all this.

A ring of truth…

In fact, the only character who seems to understand that Lecter and Starling have nothing approaching anything that could ever be a happy romantic relationship is Mason Verger.

No matter how Barney might want to romanticize it and try to make it Beauty and the Beast, Lecter’s object –  as we know from personal experience – is always degradation and suffering. He comes in the guise of a mentor – as he did to me – and her – but it’s distress that excites him.  To draw him – if that’s the goal – she needs to be distressed.  If you want to make her attractive to him, let him see her distressed.  Let the damage he sees suggest the damage he could do.

The problem is that the movie paints Verger as such an obviously evil character that his viewpoint is casually dismissed.

Civil blood…

The problem with the movie’s relatively simple approach to the romantic dynamic is that this reduces and diminishes both Hannibal and Clarice as characters in their own right, removing a lot of the complexity and ambiguity that made the two characters (and their relationship) so appealing in the first place. Instead of being these very strange (and yet very human) relationship between two very complex people, instead it’s reduced down to something approximating The Bride of Frankenstein. It’s not a bad approach of itself, it’s just one that feels like a disservice to both characters involved.

I’ve spent a great deal talking about what I didn’t like about the film – and those are fundamental flaws. However, there’s also a great deal that I do like. And, perhaps logically, it’s the elements of the film that neglect Clarice. I actually don’t mind the stuff about Hannibal by himself, even if he does feel quite watered down. I do like that the movie makes a point to explore the rather surreal fascination that the public and media has with serial killers, as it returns a few times to the market value of Lecter-related materials.

Bride of Hannibal?

“There used to be more,” a clerk in evidence advises Clarice, “but it’s been picked over little by little over the years. It’s worth a lot of money in certain circles.” Barney, the faithful nurse from the hospital, has made quite a living selling on Lecter’s personal possessions, to the point where one must wonder whether the Doctor would consider such cynical “profiteering” to be “polite.” It feels like an interesting commentary on the media’s preoccupation with the grotesque crimes of such monsters, but it also seems like a reflection on Lecter himself as a character.

In a way, the audience are complicit in the character’s decline. We, after all, demanded more and more of him – to the point where he ended up as little more than a stock serial killer. We took a character who had been massively and intriguingly compelling, and wanted more and more of him until he eventually became this watered-down shell of his former self. There’s something decidedly grim in this trading of serial killer memorabilia, but there’s also in our demands for movies and media about such characters.

All the old familiar faces…

Anthony Hopkins is having a great time as Lecter, relishing the cheesy b-movie one-liners he has to rattle off. I think that it’s fair to argue that Hopkins made Lecter such a compelling character. After all, the superb Brian Cox couldn’t really measure up to Lecter’s performance, and nobody was clamouring to see Cox in The Silence of the Lambs. While the material there was stronger, Hopkins still relishes the role.

“Let’s get something to eat,” Pazzi’s wife suggests to her husband. Lecter, left alone, fiendishly asks himself, “Why not?” Hopkins seems to love the goofy little flourishes that the script gives Lecter, like his repeated use of the endearingly laissez faire “okay dokey.” One moment sees Lecter creeping up on an unsuspecting bad guy. “Good evening,” he boasts while slicing the random thug’s throat, his eyes wide with fiendish glee, his performance more hammy than the subtle loss of restraint at the climax of The Silence of the Lambs.

All the world is a stage…

And yet, despite that, there remains some complexity to Lecter as a character. Although he fits quite uncomfortable in the role of anti-hero, the movie does suggest that there is a strange psychology at work. Lecter seems compelled by his instincts, rather than governed by the rational logic he seems to prefer. By the time we join him, he has been on the run for some time, and has gone under the radar. And yet he seems to self-sabotage repeatedly.

As he writes to Clarice, he notes, “By the way I couldn’t help noticing on the FBI’s rather dull public website that I have been hoisted from the Bureau’s archives of the common criminal and elevated to the more prestigious 10 Most Wanted list. Is this coincidence, or are you back on the case? If so, goody goody, cause I need to come out of retirement and return to public life. ”

Slasher smile!

It seems strange that Lecter would murder a lecturer and usurp his job just as he was placed back on the “10 most wanted” list, and he seems to relish his cat-and-mouse games with Pazzi. (Though, it seems, they are a poor substitute for Clarice.) Even his return to the United States seems like a tactical error, hardly the actions of somebody who wants to stay under the rader.

Still, the more hammy performance suits the film. At its best, Ridley Scott foregoes the psychological drama of The Silence of the Lambs for a more visceral grand guginol approach to horror. Bowels fly everywhere. Lecter serves up some home cooking. There are pigs trained to feed when they hear the sound of human screams. All of these are ridiculous and absurd – and very much against the buttoned-down realism of Demme’s approach to The Silence of the Lambs. I think that’s why they work much better than the moments where Scott tries to channel Demme and convince us to invest in Clarice or Lecter as characters in their own right.

Never phoning it in…

I really love the movie’s second act, where Moore’s awkward and stilted version of Clarice is conspicuously absent. Giancarlo Gianni is cast as the grizzled and corrupt Italian police officer who finds himself investigating the disappearance of a librarian that eventually leads back to Lecter and the promise of a $3,000,000 reward. The film is perhaps a little too simplistic in its portrayal of Pazzi, but he makes a nice counterpoint to the other law enforcement officials to cross paths with Lecter.

Like Starling and Will Graham, Pazzi has a very clear background in the psychology of serial killers. He worked on the Il Mostro case. The film is somewhat ambiguous on the matter – was Pazzi still investigating the famous 70’s and 80’s serial killer, or have there been a new spate of murders in Florence? If so, it seems likely that Lecter has been active in Florence than we might have suspected. Either way, it solidifies Pazzi as a counterpart to Will Graham and Clarice Starling, a detective hunting a serial killer and consulting with Lecter. (This is made more explicit int he deleted scenes, which explicitly see Lecter consulting with Pazzi on it. It’s a shame they were cut. The Florence sequence is the best of the film.) The difference, of course, is that Lecter is no longer behind bars.

Hopkins carries the film…

Lecter’s interactions with Pazzi are arguably the most fascinating interactions of the film, even moreso than Lecter’s later interactions with Clarice. There’s a sense that Lecter is matching wits with another character in competition – albeit this time the roles are reverse. Clarice and Will Graham were heroes to Lecter’s admittedly charming villain. Here, Pazzi is quite clearly the antagonist.

And yet, despite the movie’s clumsy attempts to cast Pazzi as a villain, Gianni manages to find some measure of tragedy in the police inspector as he is needled by Lecter. “Were you unfairly dismissed from the grander case?” Lecter teases him. “Or did you deserve it?” Later on, he suggests that Pazzi’s career has been smothered by those around him, a remark that clearly strikes at the detective. “But people don’t always tell you what they’re thinking…  They just see to it you don’t advance.”

A Lecter tour…

Pazzi is a character who has made the reverse of the decision that Starling and Graham made. While both investigators sacrificed their family lives in order to pursue justice, Pazzi has done the opposite. He’s willing to forget about his legal obligations in order to ensure that his wife is happy. While her fixation on opera tickets is somewhat shallow, it’s hard not to feel some measure of pity for Pazzi, particularly when the culmination of Starling and Graham’s character arcs demonstrate that integrity is no more likely to earn a happy ending in this cynical world.

The movie does seem a bit too quick to portray Pazzi as an out-and-out villain, with Lecter even delivering a thematically-appropriate lecture as their dance leads towards a merry climax. “In fact, avarice and hanging are linked in the medieval mind,” Lecter boasts, in case we were ever unsure of who the film wants us to root for. The film seems afraid to present Pazzi is a sympathetic character, because it might challenge our affection and support for Lecter as a character. It seems a strangely moral position for a movie with a serial killer as a protagonist.

A Cordell engagement…

Hannibal is clearly constructed as a loving homage to The Silence of the Lambs. There’s a wonderful establishing shot of Florence of “the Duomo seen from the Belvedere”, a reference to Lecter’s drawings in the earlier film. (“Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”) There are moments when this reverence for the earlier film threatens to become too much. “Hello, Clarice,” he coos just like he did before. At the climax, changes into a white shirt, recalling his prison outfit.

Hans Zimmer’s score is wonderful stuff. I especially like his composition of Let my Home be my Gallows, the song that plays over Lecter’s lecture in Florence. The Florence sequence really is the best part of the film, and it’s a shame that the movie really felt the need to drag in the simplified version of Clarice Starling or the cartoonishly evilMason Verger into its first and third acts. (Although the film gets points for not having Verger drink martinis mixed with the tears of children – a hobby of his in the book.)

Il Mostro…

Gary Oldman actually does a great job as Verger, hidden beneath all that make-up. Verger is a ridiculous character, because he really seems like a clear attempt to construct the most despicable character ever. Oldman manages to make this enjoyable in its own way, as he relishes frightening people with his ghastly appearance, loves talking about the way he used to abuse children (even when not connected to the topic at hand), and even seems to enjoy mocking his live-in doctor. (“You could be useful, seeing about my lunch,” Verge informs Cordell, who is clearly putting that medical degree to good use.)

Part of me likes Hannibal, on its own terms. It’s a completely different animal from its predecessor. I actually sincerely enjoy the middle third, featuring Lecter on the loose in Florence. It feels like the movie manages to cut loose of its baggage there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite last, and the result is a decidedly uneven film, but certainly not one without its moments.

4 Responses

  1. Good Lord man, shut UP! I finally had to quit reading about a third of the way through. (I thought I’d gotten almost to the end.) As someone once said about another unperceptive review, you have summed up all the film’s virtues and labelled them vices. The hardships Starling faces, the various bad guys like Krendler and Verger. the theme of unfairness that runs through the plot… these are exactly what makes Hannibal such an interesting film. Maybe you finally got around to pointing that out. I don’t know; if you did, I didn’t get that far.

    • I had to quit reading your comment about a third of the way through, but yeah, I hate it when people use their words to express concepts and ideas that haven’t agreed with my own by like a third of the way into the article.

      Nah, I’m kidding. I actually read your comment, because I’m interested in engaging with what you had to say. Hence not opening the response with an echo of the “Good Lord man, shut UP!” intro, which seems ironic when you’re about to launch into a spiel. Because what anybody else has to say is completely irrelevant when it doesn’t conform to your opinion. The internet obviously exists as giant echo chamber designed to repeat your opinions back to you, so you feel validated.

      I get that you like Hannibal more than I did. In fact, if you’d read to the end of the review, you’d have found that I am actually quite fond of it for my own reasons. But it seems a little nuts to suggest your opinion is absolute and mine is wrong. After all, they are opinions. You are entitled to your own and I am to mine.

      As for my propensity for verbosity, I will admit that I am a greedy word bastard. And that’s terrible.

      Somewhere in North Hampshire, a newly married couple are looking for dinner table conversation, but they can’t find any. Because I have all the words. As a result, their marriage will slowly slip into a cycle of passive aggressive mistrust and dislike. And it’s all my fault, because I am a greedy word bastard.

      In Accra, a young teenager is struggling to find the right words to tell his date that she looks beautiful. However, he’ll never locate those words in time, because I took them all and processed them into a review of a Ridley Scott film. As a result, that couple will never get married and have a kids, and that’s on me, because I am a greedy word bastard.

      So, kids, remember what you learned here today. Using words to express and develop words and concepts is just greedy. You’re taking them people who need them the most, because everybody knows that words are a precious and finite natural resource. Like coal, or children, or the ability to franchise the X-Men characters.

      • U had me chuckling the whole time throughout ur response Darren. Hahal! Too bad, I was really looking farword to a response from him. Ah well. I couldn’t watch this film in its entirety simply because of the Jodie Foster recast. It just irked me to death when I saw her in screen. Like that little itch u just can’t reach. It was very distracting. On top a that, the whole film(ocould her, the parts I’ve managed to watch) just seem a bit too superfluous and over simplified; hammy even as u so rightly put. Still, maybe I shouldn’t criticise so soon since I haven’t watched it entirely which is why I came here in the first place so I could get a more well rounded idea of what it entailed and what I may missed.

        Ah well, hopefully I’ll have the patience to watch it and give u a more well rounded response too…
        Thx Darren, the words smith.

      • Thanks Michail!

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