Most horror movie villains are merely repellent; not many move us enough to truly frighten us. Hannibal Lecter is one of the few who does.
So I wrote in my review of The Silence of the Lambs; and it was true — in Silence of the Lambs, which still has the power to frighten a decade later. But in Hannibal — the much-anticipated Silence sequel set ten years after the earlier film — Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, reprising his best-known role) is no longer frightening; and neither is this film.
As directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), Hannibal is stylishly mounted and has its entertaining moments. Ultimately, though, it’s like most horror movies: repellent where it should have been frightening, and, in the end, uninvolving and hollow. So many characters suffer such ghastly things, yet none of it seems to matter much.
Why is that? Partly it’s because the story’s creators (beginning with novelist Thomas Harris, who wrote the books both movies are based on) made the common mistake of populating the supporting cast with unlikable, unsympathetic characters. Silence had a terrible urgency stemming in part from the agony we felt for the poor girl we witnessed being kidnapped and imprisoned by a serial killer called "Buffalo Bill," who we knew would in time kill her (as he had other women) unless she was rescued in time.
Also, of course, we identified deeply with FBI trainee Clarice Starling (then played by Jodie Foster), who not only had to face Lecter himself, but also found herself in a nerve-racking showdown with Buffalo Bill. And the peril of those poor D.C. cops who had the fateful task of trying to keep Lecter in a cage, and of the others who had to search the building when he disappeared, kept us on the edge of our seats.
By contrast, those in harm’s way in Hannibal tend not to be anyone we could really care about, or be afraid for. Chief among these is a grotesquely disfigured, vengeance-crazed, homosexual billionaire recluse named Mason Verger (uncredited Gary Oldman, here even more unrecognizably made-up, more unappealing, and more strangely named than as Shelly Runyon in The Contender).
Mason Verger is described as Lecter’s "only living victim" (Lecter never actually touched him, but rather induced him to take a knife to his own face during a drug-induced stupor). Verger rants about finding Jesus, but it’s Lecter he really wants to find — and crucify. (Homosexual activists who objected to Buffalo Bill’s gender-identity issues will presumably find the Verger character equally objectionable; of course, he’s also offensive to Christians as a case in point of the tiresome Hollywood convention of connecting psychotic tendencies with Christian faith. [For more on Christian themes and imagery in Hannibal, see below.)
Other supporting characters — all of whom to one degree or another serve Mason Verger’s vendetta against Lecter — are similarly unsympathetic. There’s a slimy Justice Department official (Ray Liotta) who takes money from Verger to sabotage Starling’s career, meanwhile harassing her with demeaning obscenities and crude advances. Then there’s a dishonest Italian cop named Pazzi (pronounced "patsy", played by Giancarlo Giannini) who chooses not to help the FBI close in on Lecter, hoping instead to capture the old cannibal himself and turn him over to Verger for a bounty. Oh, and a pickpocket hired by Pazzi to snatch Lecter’s wallet in order to get his fingerprints.
None of these characters elicits much sympathy or concern; which makes it hard to get much worked up about what Hannibal might do to them. Of course any death is a tragedy: but not every death makes for gripping drama.
The only characters who elicit any sympathy or personal interest are Clarice (now played by Julianne Moore) and Hannibal himself — though even this is more because we already know these characters than because this film develops or deepens them in any way. And of these two, only Hannibal is really especially in the line of fire (from Verger and his surrogates). Yet he isn’t fazed by this, or by anything that befalls him.
The same goes for Clarice, who was the main character in Silence but is here relegated to a strictly supporting role. She faces ordinary FBI-type threats, and of course her career is on the line; but she’s never up against anything quite like that terrible face-off at the end of Silence, or her cell-block confrontations with Lecter.
Oh, the movie gets around to pairing her and Hannibal again, in the last act. But Hannibal, of all people, is no threat to Clarice. Sure, he terrified her (and us) ten years ago from a prison cell; but even back then, as soon as he was out of the cell, she was sure he would never seek to harm her: "He would consider that rude." Lecter himself even confirmed it, at the end of Silence: "Don’t worry, Clarice, I have no plans to call on you. The world is much more interesting with you in it." Maybe so, but Hannibal is much less interesting when its lone sympathetic and admirable figure is never pushed to the point of fear.
But it’s more than that. We aren’t afraid of Lecter killing Clarice (because we know he won’t), and we aren’t afraid of him killing anyone else (because we don’t care about them); but there’s a further sense in which we just aren’t afraid of Lecter, period. Film critic Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer puts his finger on the reason: "Lecter is less scary at large than he was in a cell [where] we wondered how he’d use his cunning to overcome attendants or visitors who were always on guard against him. Here, amid an unsuspecting world, he need only sneak up behind somebody with a chloroformed rag or a knife; you or I could do that." Lecter’s freedom diminishes him; nothing he does with it is half so impressive or interesting as the spectacular way he acquired it.
Finally, whatever is left of Lecter’s aura of danger is dissipated by the introduction of an even creepier villain who wants to kill him. Buffalo Bill was arguably creepier than Lecter too, but Silence wisely didn’t pit its two heavies directly against one another, thereby allowing each to retain his own peculiar creepiness and horror. Here, with Lecter the target of another psycho’s vendetta, the other guy becomes the true heavy, leaving Lecter as the sympathetic figure, the anti-hero rather than the villain.
In fact, by giving Lecter an opponent who is a reclusive, bizarre psychopath with limitless resources, an isolated lair, and an elaborately exotic method of execution prepared for his enemy, Hannibal essentially reinvents its protagonist as a kind of darker James Bond. With his cool sophistication and charm, unflappable self-possession, physical prowess and ingenuity, winking banter with the female lead, and clipped British enunciation (lighter on the "Hannibalisms" than in the previous film), Lecter bears a more than passing resemblance to Ian Fleming’s superspy. (Hopkins has already played a high-ranking character in a Bond-like outfit, in M:I-2.)
Like Bond, too, Hannibal remains an enigma, an action figure into whose psyche we have no insight. And, as with a typical Bond film, the events in Hannibal don’t matter in themselves, except as a context for the hero’s exploits (of course, Lecter must kill without the benefit of a license).
Lecter’s deadly deeds are carefully arranged in ascending order of grossness, and are filmed with increasing disregard for restraint or taste. (Spoilers ahead.) First there are intimations that Lecter killed someone offscreen in order to assume his job; and we see a flashback of Lecter inducing the drugged Verger to cut up his own face. Then Lecter dispatches a paid attacker with a knife wound to the groin.
Later, when the dishonest cop Pazzi attempts to capture him, Lecter throws him out a high window with a noose around his neck, simultaneously slicing open his intestinal cavity (evoking — the film is at pains to note — the death of Judas Iscariot, of whom we read in scripture both that he "hanged himself," and that his "bowels burst out").
Then, like so many Bond-style villains, Verger’s hideous plan to execute Lecter backfires on himself, and the wretched man winds up being eaten by his own specially trained carnivorous boars. This sequence, which features a closeup on an enormous boar gnawing on a man’s face, I found the most revolting in the film, although the climax features an even more outrageous atrocity: After drugging a man, Lecter saws off his skullcap without killing him, and later removes, sauteés, and feeds him bits of his own brain. For me at least, this last scene was so over-the-top, so calculated for shock value, that it ceased entirely to be an event happening to characters in a story, and became merely film footage of actors on a set with some special effects and a guy behind a camera who wanted an outrageous finale.
How different is all this excess from the subtlety and restraint that characterized The Silence of the Lambs. In that film, when Lecter peeled off a dead man’s face, Demme showed us only the back of the corpse’s head. Here, when Hannibal removes a living man’s skullcap and exposes his brains, Scott gives us an excellent, extended view of the proceedings. There are also wild boars eating faces, intestines hanging out and splattering on pavement, and blood pooling on the ground under a dying man. Very gross, but not very scary.
And it’s not just the violence that suffers from lack of
subtlety. Consider the theme of the pressures faced by Starling
as a woman in a male-dominated field. Silence had an
understated visual subtext that repeatedly made us aware, in
small ways, how self-conscious Clarice was made to feel in rooms
full of men, how much courage it took simply to get onto a
crowded elevator or to assert herself to a bunch of yokel cops.
In Hannibal, by contrast, we get a leering sexist pig who
refers to Starling to her face, not once but twice, as "corn-pone
Finally, no faith-informed review of this film would be complete without mention of Hannibal’s strange, and ultimately meaningless, invocation of Christian imagery and themes. First, of course, are the superfluous references to Mason Verger’s alleged faith. Then Hannibal, posing as an art lecturer, expounds upon various Christian images, particularly images of the death of Judas, which as mentioned above Lecter reproduces in his murder of Pazzi the cop (who of course sought to "betray" him to Verger).
Then the Lecter-as-Christ motif gets really weird, with Lecter bound spread-armed to a cruciform stock-like device designed to hold him while the wild boars devour his flesh. But where Christ fed his followers His own flesh, Hannibal later contrives to feed one of his adversaries his own flesh, if you follow me.
I can appreciate the cinematic use of Christian imagery, even if the purpose isn’t specifically religious, as long as there’s a valid point to be made. Here, it seems pointless. And much same could be said for the film as a whole. Hannibal is too well-made to be really unwatchable, and I admit I found engaging at times; but in the end I was sorry I had seen it — not just because of its gross-out scenes or misuse of Christian imagery, but because it diminished and weakened characters whom I valued from an earlier, better film.
In this review I have devoted more space and critical energy than Hannibal deserved. This is in part a tribute to its predecessor. Hannibal is an unworthy sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. It should not have been made.
Now, with Red Dragon, based on the novel in which Lecter first appeared, the series has come full circle. In Silence, we saw Lecter escape from prison; here we see him captured by FBI profiler Will Graham (Ed Norton, The Score). While the humorous note introduced by Hannibal continues to be a factor, an effective prelude reestablishes Lecter as a frightening psychopath who’s willing to kill innocent and likeable characters.
Lecter fascinates us because he embodies qualities that we associate with civilized, reasonable existence, yet he is murderously sociopathic. In our therapeutic age, he’s a shocking reminder that, beyond all psychobabble about “behavior modification” and the like, there remains the sheer reality of good and evil. The doctor is in: God help us all.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.