Sunday, 20 February 2005
Manhunter and Red Dragon: Comparing good and evil
By Helen Wang, for THECOMMENTARY.CA
I set out to watch Red Dragon before Manhunter, because I probably would not want to watch the former if I had started with the latter, which most people find superior to the updated version. Some find it superior to The Silence of the Lambs. Both adaptations tell the story of Will Graham, the retired FBI agent damaged both in body and spirit after his capture of one Dr. Hannibal Lector, who is lured by his mentor and ex-boss Jack Crawford to join the investigation of a serial killer, The Tooth Fairy, the deranged yet oddly sympathetic psychopath that kills one family at each full moon night to complete his illusory transformation into The Red Dragon. I too prefer the Mann version to the Brett Ratner update. Brett Ratner to Michael Mann is what Chris Columbus is to Alfonso Cuarůn. What a difference it makes when a film is composed at the hands of men who actually possess distinct directorial styles, instead of just regurgitating whatís on the page, digesting and giving us the story in their own unique storyteller voices. This is not to say that Manhunter was without its flaws and Red Dragon completely without merit.
My number one issue against Manhunter is the music. The cheesy, dated, synthesized soundtrack completely takes the momentum out of an ongoing scene. It adds cheese to a touching moment, and takes out the creep from a particular chilling frame. In addition, Michael Mann hasnít seemed to flush Miami Vice completely out of his system. The odd pacing in the narrative sometimes makes the movie sluggish, the limited budget also ensures the film a somewhat TV movie-of-the-week feel. And there has got to be a better way to show how Graham creepily goes inside the head of a twisted killer without having these prolonged shots of him standing there reciting long monologues into his recorder, shouting didnít you, 'YOU BASTARD' into thin air. There is one brilliant and horrifying moment in Manhunter much later, which shows a shot of Graham standing in front of the victimís bed, suddenly seeing a vision of a bloody Mrs. Leers, bathed in angelic white light, with mirror shards in her empty eye sockets, holding out her arms to him, a completely silent moment that literally made me shrivel into my couch. Ratnerís version showed plenty of grisly pictures of the victims with the same bloody blank eyes, but never using them in an effective scene that makes oneís skin crawl and at the same time shows what a horrible curse is to be a man like Will Graham.
And now for the good. The film has its stylistic moments, and some gorgeous visuals, which gives us slippery cool and antiseptically elegant urban cities with streamlined art deco buildings reaching upwards to a smoky night sky. Even the scenery in a Mann film seem to give off this quiet masculine intensity, the sort that defines stoic sufferers who perpetually lock their muted psychological scars behind cages of cold steel and polished glass. Will Graham is the man that embodies this haunting quality of this world, a man who has the particular gift to assume the perception and imagination of other people, to think like them. It is with this gift that he uses to hunt down criminals, risking his own sanity to enter into the minds of pure evil, trying to both understand the madness and at the same time keeping the madness from corroding his own mind. I love Clarice Starling, and the struggle that she took to gain footing in a world that requires a woman to do twice the work a man does to get the same recognition and respect. It is so rare and precious to get a great female character. But I must admit, from a sheer characterisation point of view, Graham is the more interesting character.
A preference for Clarice Starling versus Will Graham is really more of an apples and oranges issue. As for performances, I prefer Jodie Foster above both William Petersen and Edward Norton. Starling, who constantly struggles to maintain her composure against feeling of vulnerability and out-of-place discomfort, who quietly radiates a keen intelligence and determination as she faces off the obstacles in her path, always threatened by danger and fear, yet never backing off; driven by an urge to save the innocent and render justice for those wronged. Clarice Starling works in Jonathan Demmeís film because the filmmaker chose to make it an almost mythological story of heroes who journey to the dark gothic underworld to save the young innocent girls from fiendish monsters. In short, a gothic horror story. A straightforward heroine for a straightforward story. Michael Mannís film was more a work of a modern psychological analysis of its central characterís mind. This is also the reason why I do not necessarily agree that Brian Coxís Hannibal Lector is more subtle, and thus is a better interpretation of the character than Anthony Hopkins's classic super villain. The two versions of Lector serve different purposes for two very different films. What Anthony Hopkins did in Red Dragon, however, I did not care much for. I can understand if Dr. Lector decides to put on a little show for an impressionable young woman like Starling, scaring her a little, charming her a little. The whole psychotic, chilling, confidently evil performance was perhaps the doctorís way of impressing a woman.
Will Graham, the one man in the world that understands what Lector really is, knows the very thoughts that goes on in his head, Lector would not have put on such an extravagant performance, despite his insanity the doctor is always more calculating than flamboyant. Lector toys with Graham only to unleash the psychopathic potential that he sees in Graham, which he believes that Graham is capable of, and thus bit by bit destroying what sanity is left there in the man who condemned him behind bars. And given their past mentor-student relationship, it makes sense that Lector would attempt to do this by taking on a more casual, more charmingly yet disarmingly manipulative approach. If Sir Anthony had continued what he did in the teaser of Red Dragon, it was be a fitting performance, but alas, he decided to go with the whole operatic drama queen modus operandi, snarling out one-liners instead of being dulcetly persuasive.
Half the problem with Red Dragon is precisely because they decided to use as much Hannibal Lector as they possibly could in the film, despite this being Will Graham and Francis Dollarhydeís story, Lector being the presence that affects both men, who each tries to struggle with the malicious entity that threatens to take over his mind. A successful Red Dragon adaptation should show as less Hannibal Lector as they can, yet make every moment suffused with his shadow (but it probably would not have made much money at the box office).
As charismatic a character as Lector is, his role in both Red Dragon is to serve as a character foil, akin to the role played by Jack Crawford. Men like Lector objectify their victims, so they can enjoy the killing. Men like Crawford objectify their serial killers, so they can focus on the hunting and not be distressed by psychopathic depravity they are asked to witness. Graham is incapable of both, he can envision himself as the killer and through his active imagination feel what a killer feels as they take the life of their victims, but because of his compassion for living beings, he cannot ultimately commit the act, vice versa, because he allows these deranged thoughts into his head. He is also unable to distance himself from the hold these monsters have on him, and must constantly struggle to separate his own humanity from those that invade his consciousness.
The Freddy Lounds incident serves as an ambiguous reminder as to how easy it is for Graham to take on a Lector persona. I donít believe that Graham consciously chooses to place Loundsís life in danger, despite how much he despises the man. Because if it were a conscious decision, Graham wouldíve had Lounds kept under surveillance, because any chance with the Tooth Fairy capture is a good chance. But once Lector whispers in his ear, both he and we wonder whether on an unconscious level that the hand placed upon Loundsís shoulder in the newspaper photograph served as the trigger that eventually cost Loundsís his life.
One particularly revealing scene in Manhunter was when Lector calls Graham from prison to congratulate him on the successful Ďmurderí of Freddy Lounds. Graham holds the phone away from his ear, but is unable to hang up the phone and shut off that voice. Instead, he sits there staring off into the distance, as that dulcet tone drones on from the receiver, unable to fend off the doubt that he would never free himself from the hold of the monsters in his head. I loved how Brian Cox played this scene, lying so casually on the bed, talking in such deceptively soft voice slightly lined with a sardonic edge. I loved that fact that we donít know how this phone conversation came about. And that Graham in this scene doesnít seem to be after Lector about the Tooth Fairy. God knows, it sounds like such a casual phone call; it rather gives you a sense of what things were like before Lector stabbed Will in the gut. They were men that would converse with each other deep into the night. Personally speaking, lying around is such a relaxed position for a phone conversation, it suggests shared intimacy, a certain decadent mutual tolerance and affection, playfulness, and sensual lethargy.
Manhunter characterises Graham by increasingly isolating his interaction with other people. Half of the time that he's on screen, Graham mumbles to himself, or on the phone. Even when Jack Crawford is with him, Jack's always seen working behind a desk while Graham is kneeling in front of the television set at the other end of the room. It accentuates Graham's discomfort and uncertainty about his place in the world, whether a man like him is safe for his family or for society in general. One particular interesting scene takes place on the plane, where Graham had laid out several grisly pictures of the murder scenes in front of him before he falls asleep. The content of these pictures frightened the little girl sitting next to him so much that she burst into tears. It's a comical scene, while at the same thing suggesting to us that perhaps in many ways Graham is a man not adjusted to societal life. In Red Dragon, there's not so much of that hint of danger, Graham is no longer a potential threat to his own family. Here, Graham does not share the exchange with his mildly freaked out son about what had once happened to him and why he had to go to a mental hospital for a short while. Here Graham seems to be at peace with his life and family, and only worries about how he may not be able to protect his wife and son. In my opinion, Will Graham is a less interesting character when he is not at conflict with himself.
Manhunter had this exchange between Crawford and Graham, regarding Francis Dollarhyde:
Agent Jack Crawford FBI: You feel sorry for him.
Will Graham: As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult... as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to fulfill some sick fantasy. As an adult, I think someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.
Whereas in Red Dragon, Graham just talks about how pitiful Francis Dollarhyde is and how it took years of abuse to create the monster that took possession of his mind. In the above exchange what can clearly be seen is how Graham is forcefully trying to detach Dollarhyde's presence from his head, dehumanizing and condemning him, you get the sense that this is the only way Graham can shrug off the bloody confrontation and the gruesome memories. I much prefer this Graham.
In terms of Lector, I have pretty much said all I want to say. Lector is such a wonderful villain. He confuses his fans with the boundary between what is pure evil and what is pure free will. Cultured super villains are always irresistible to the viewing public, especially one so charming and endearing as our dear doctor.
Regarding Francis Dollarhyde and Reba in the two versions. In terms of Emily Watson versus Joan Allen, I prefer Watson's earthy sensuality. The Fiennes-Watson scenes had some great chemistry between the two actors. Red Dragon also gave longer scenes for this pair than Manhunter, thus you get a more developed relationship story, especially the story from Reba's point of view. I love Ralph Fiennes' Do you see speech better than Tom Noonan's, mainly because the former injects his scene with a delicious theatric grandeur, which seem to fit the occasion; Ralph Fiennes played a great Red Dragon. But Tom Noonan played a simply heartbreaking Francis Dollarhyde, all awkward limbs and sad dog eyes. The sad monster, the sad man behind the monster. The post-coital scene in Manhunter where Dollarhyde clamps his own mouth and sobs his heart out is a more touching and humanizing moment and more effective at making us sympathize with Dollarhyde than all of the flashback abuse stories offered in Red Dragon.
As for the bit players, I prefer Lamb's Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford, whose taut posture makes you want to sit up straighter when he walks into a room. Neither Dennis Farina nor Harvey Keitel has quite got that polished white-collar bureaucratic feel. Manhunter's Dr. Chilton wasn't quite as sleazy and unlikable-on-sight as Anthony Heald's version. More Philip Seymour Hoffman is always enjoyable. Though both Freddy Lounds served their purpose well.
I found ways to enjoy both films, despite finding Michael Mann's version vastly superior to Ratner's. However, I still find Manhunter's soundtrack unbearably detrimental to one's enjoyment of the film. The film in itself felt more like a draft of what will eventually mature into Mann's well-known stylish direction of today.
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