Recent polls have named Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest movie villains of all time. Members of the Online Film Critics Society recently ranked Anthony Hopkins’s signature role second only to Darth Vader, and in a popular poll he finished first.
This cultural impact is due almost entirely to the success of Jonathan Demme’s 1991 horror hit The Silence of the Lambs, based on the second of Thomas Harris’s three novels to feature the character. When Hopkins reprised the role for last year’s inferior, ugly sequel Hannibal, directed by Ridley Scott from Harris’s equally misconceived final novel, the character was diminished from a fascinating, menacing monster into an almost comic antihero who wasn’t scary, largely because he threatened only bad characters that we didn’t care about anyway.
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 likable characters.
After Hannibal, some suggested that Lecter was scary only in captivity, since on the loose he seemed no more dangerous than any thug with a weapon. Red Dragon’s opening scenes prove that the problem with Hannibal wasn’t that Lecter was free, but how that movie had him use his freedom. Here, Lecter is chilling, not simply because he attacks another character, but because of how he talks to him as he does so. Hannibal Lecter is back.
The overall shape of the Hopkins/Hannibal trilogy might be compared to that of the Indiana Jones movies: a memorable four-star original; an unpleasant and inferior follow-up; and a decent third chapter. As this indicates, Red Dragon isn’t in the same league as The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s a worthy prelude, as Hannibal was an unworthy sequel.
The difference between the two latter films lies primarily in the source material. Unlike Hannibal, Red Dragon has a good story — one that was already brought to the screen in 1986 under the moniker Manhunter, a well-made but little-seen film with Brian Cox (The Rookie) in the Lecter role. (Manhunter, though somewhat dated, remains worth seeing, and contains none of the extreme disturbing imagery or nudity in the later trilogy.)
I haven’t read any of the Harris books, but the new Red Dragon movie is said to be more faithful to the book, with more insight into the psychosis of its main antagonist, and a climactic conflict that, while hackneyed in some ways, offers a moment of psychological confrontation that’s more interesting than a hail of bullets (though it does come down to that in both versions). The most significant revision, presumably, is the beefed-up role for Lecter, a more incidental figure in the first novel (and the ’86 film version).
Director Brett Ratner, best known for the Rush Hour movies and The Family Man, brings competence but little more to the proceedings. Fortunately, he’s helped by energetic performances from his talented cast.
As Will Graham, Ed Norton effectively conveys the conflict between his character’s revulsion at the horrible things he has to deal with and look at, and the sense of responsibility he feels to do so for the greater good of society. It’s Graham’s responses to the horrific crime scenes and photos that makes them endurable; he makes us reflect that, as little as we might wish to deal with such ugly realities, it’s necessary for someone to do so. (As a film critic, I sometimes feel this way about reviewing certain movies!)
Also conflicted is Ralph Fiennes (The End of the Affair) as Francis Dolarhyde, the only killer in the series who ever struggles with his urges or makes any effort to resist them. Although Graham is convinced that the murderer called "the Tooth Fairy" will never stop, for a while it almost looks as if he might. The reason: a winsome, blind coworker played by Emily Watson (Gosford Park), whose interest in Dolarhyde becomes a humanizing force in his twisted life. Watson’s performance is possibly the strongest and most interesting in the film; you can believe that she might make a serial killer think seriously about going straight, unless he is simply overwhelmed by his inner demons.
Of course, it’s Hopkins that people are coming to see; and his performance doesn’t disappoint. At the same time, Lecter doesn’t shine here the way he does in the first film, for several reasons. One is that he doesn’t have the chemistry with Graham that he did with Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, in part because Graham is a less interesting character, and isn’t as overwhelmed by Lecter. Another factor is that Lecter’s dialogue isn’t as diabolically unpredictable; I was never afraid of what he might say, though I enjoyed the creepiness of how he says it.
Perhaps the single most unsatisfactory thing about Red Dragon is that it might not be the last film in the series. Producer Dino De Laurentiis, never a stickler for artistic integrity, wants to turn the property into an ongoing franchise. "It’s like James Bond," he’s been quoted as saying; and, indeed, in my review of Hannibal one of my objections was precisely that the character had been turned into a kind of darker 007, complete with unflappable demeanor, British accent, deadly approach to bad guys, and even a Bond-style antagonist.
Red Dragon gives Lecter his dignity back. It’s a fitting final bow for the character, and it should end here. Further films would inevitably complete the process, begun in Hannibal, of reducing one of Hollywood’s greatest villains from an icon to a caricature.
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.
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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.