Red Dragon / Film of the Week: The Silence of the Lambs / Hannibal (2002 / 1991 / 2001)

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Brett Ratner, Jonathan Demme and Ridley Scott direct Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Jodie Foster, Ted Levine, Frankie Faison, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman and Ray Liotta in this trilogy about a captured high functioning psychopath who has affections for the FBI agents who ask politely for his help and for eating people. 

I’m going to be controversial here. Anthony Hopkins is a bit rubbish as Hannibal Lecter. He won an Oscar as him, starred in three films that collectively made over $800 million dollars at the box office (unheard of for a hard R rated series 15 years ago) and entered into the public consciousness as the character in a way that no movie icon has since… apart from maybe Austin Powers. So there’s your problem by sentence number 3 of this retrospective, I’m easily comparing Hannibal the Cannibal to Austin Powers. And the comparison fits. What was genuinely a seductive, chilling and full fat role when dished up through short, puzzling bursts in Silence of the Lambs got expanded by near continual parody in the intervening years. Lecter became a character that had been filtered and redefined by a decade of spoof by the time he returned. So when a cash-in sequel and prequel came along, they foolishly upped the Lecter content, stretching the good doctor thin thin thin so we are left with a wispy pantomime villian; a Xerox of an impersonation of a punchline to a great support character. The pair of subsequent movies piggybacking off Silence have way too much Lecter to bare scrutiny, and Lecter not as the coiled, enclosed god, waiting to bite off your jaw or tinker with your mind, but as the closing sting japester, in his wig and Panama hat, cheekily telling Clarice “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

Hopkins’ caged genius predator was truly great when rationed out, but once the big paychecks to return rolled in and the narratives are being carried by his hands alone we get parody and repetition… why for example in Red Dragon does he start doing his Okie impression of not yet met Clarice, apart from misguided fan service? Okie Dokie!

And it doesn’t help that Brian Cox’s brief appearance in the same role in the earlier Manhunter is more blankly intriguing; that Mads Mikkelsen’s expanded, erotic and eminent central turn in the recent brilliant TV series is so winning. Hopkins unsuccessfully returning with his bucket to the Thomas Harris well twice pretty much ranks him down as the third best Hannibal Lecter. Only the German guy no one can remember who played diddy cannibal in that prequel no-one watched comes in behind the great actor in his most famous role. We start with the personification of unstoppable danger, we end with essentially a travelling Frasier Crane who is willing to gut a man.

Toughens the nipples, doesn’t it?

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The last film to be made yet the first in the chronology, Red Dragon has to be the most redundant movie ever made (cash takings aside). Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptation Manhunter may have flopped on release but as a genre flick it is one of the finest ever made, joining Se7en, Zodiac, M and Silence itself in the rare club of 5 star serial killer thrillers. And Bryan Fuller’s TV series uses the well plundered source material again to close down all the story arcs with a run through of the same plot and characters that somehow still manages to feel experimental, vital and relevant third time around. Brett Ratner’s prequel on the other hand feels like a student thesis, a project to remake a classic film in the backyard for a weekend… only gallingly with a brilliant cast putting in minimum effort, only with a mega budget that adds a paint by numbers sheen to the whole forgery. Not unlike Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot Psycho, you spend the entire rehash looking for variations rather than getting caught up in the experience. And whenever bonus Hopkins can be crammed in, the cramming begins. The source story is an absolute cracker, no weak cover version can diminish that strength, and Fiennes clearly wants to bring something new to Francis Dolarhyde (though he lacks Tom Noonan’s otherworldly ownership of the part). It’s watchable but why look at a pavement chalk drawing of the Mona Lisa, when Michael Mann’s superior original is so accessible.

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The Silence of the Lambs, is a masterpiece though, and still a masterpiece, despite its unruly spawn. An absolute corker of a ghost train ride with both villians hurtling along parallel tracks for maximum shock. Jonathan Demme (usually the maker of interesting rather than great cinema) deploys every trick in the book to keep you guessing, tense and unnerved. Then, in the final coup de grâce, when we accidentally find ourselves at Buffalo Bill’s house, invents a whole new piece of big screen conjuring. Yet he drips it all in a prestigious autumnal sheen so that the constant grindhouse nasty feels intelligently deployed, sensitively handled and the by-product of a tasteful, classy affair. C movie content, A movie craftsmanship. The actual intent is vice versa, but this worked on the Academy, they gave this grim freak show the 5 biggest awards. That puts Silence in the exclusive company of It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Not bad for an airport novel shocker, and not in anyway undeserved either.

So many moments from the film have entered in the modern lexicon, become touchstones within western culture as a whole. Yet some of the most sinister gristle remains untalked about. “I can smell your cunt.” Clarice surrounded by ominous State Troopers (the uniform of her dead daddy) being dismissed and viewed sexually at the same time. When the lights go out in Bill’s basement. Hell, Bill himself. Ted Levine is sickening as the beast wanting transformation. From his skin suit to his swastika bedspread to his ratty little poodle he has the nomenclature of hell made flesh. When he orders his next kill to put the lotion in the basket it is inhuman, when his composure breaks and a slither of relatable anger and frustration bubbles though… just a pop, just a smidgen, mind… it is tragic. The one strength of the series entire is its main “antagonists”; The Tooth Fairy, Bill and Mason Verger are the complex stuff of nightmares and they fight hard to wrestle the spotlight from Hopkins increasingly hammy, top billed supporting turn. They all wrestle well, if they never pin him, they win on points. Mason Verger in particular I’ll talk about and praise more in a bit.

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Which brings us to Clarice Starling. The tough, hardworking, determined and psychologically believable heroine. Decent, pure protagonists rarely have this much depth, are seen as being tangibly this human onscreen. Of course this is all down to Jodie Foster, she invests her key role with a charming straight arrow directness – Elliot Ness with as much heart as brains. No wonder Hannibal falls for her. No wonder the world did. Her short, slight stature, her unguarded reading of threats both in the line of fire and the work place make you worry for her. Yet she is consistently presented as tough as nails, a risk taker. She’ll sweatily kicks down doors in training or in the field, she returns to Lecter, she gets right up to the glass if it means a step closer to rescuing the victim. Striving and excelling in a dangerous man’s world on her own terms, all the while keeping her own female identity made Clarice Starling a rare feminist icon in cinema. Rare even today.

BBC Culture’s Nicholas Barber noted “Demme and his team may have hoped to usher in a new age of intelligent, independent, inspiring Hollywood heroines, but instead it was haughty homicidal maniacs who caught the public imagination.” And that would prove the series’ undoing. It got hooked on the monstrous male gazers and flirting ladykillers rather than the franchise’s one fully developed human. When they decided the inferior Julianne Moore was an interchangeable fit for a declining Foster they decided cannibals were more important than saviours. I would have mothballed the project the second Jodie said “No thanks.” And maybe Foster just sensibly realised what a shitstorm an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal was bound to be.

I have given Hannibal the sequel two tries. Both times I was frustrated by how directionless and ambling it is. In no rush to get nowhere. Not-Clarice sits in a Justice Department basement for the entire second act, the most exciting sequences involve Lecter wandering around lesser landmarks while characters with no given names stalk him. At one point we cut to an Italian cop watching some Champion’s League on telly. I was jealous. It all seemed far more involving a watch. And I don’t even like football. Ridley Scott collects a paycheck. He frames the excessive Grand Guignol well enough but the beige blank wall space it hangs from is gargantuan and overwhelming. Clearly the work of someone happy to shrug his talented shoulders and just shoot a discordant script. And he shoots the violent, brain peeling jumble as prettily as the budget allowed and no doubt moved on to more engaging projects off the back of the inevitable positive till receipts. There is no clarity to the plotlines or unity to the ensemble that a great director who cared about the material might bring. I’m a fan of Ridders so it hurts typing that.

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There are two seams of gold within the slate. Ray Liotta goes full pelt as Clarice’s sexist superior. And Gary Oldman as Mason Verger is just delicious. Verger has to be the most underrated movie monster in cinema history. Horrifyingly scared, wickedly self aware and unstoppably enthusiastic, his one wish is to see Lecter fed to the pigs. And in many ways Oldman imbues this disgusting nasty with such electrifying delivery he manages to elevate the drossy, rote film he finds himself in (uncredited pointedly… Hmmm?). He in many ways serves the same purpose as Hopkins did in Silence. He turns a support role into something more troubling, a side antagonist into the main event. And to prove just how undeserving Hannibal the movie is of such a millionaire pederast horrowshow, Hannibal the TV show embraced Mason Verger fully. Let him run wild. And it was glorious.

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Such a shame that Lecter, Starling and Verger found their stories left dangling in such a mediocre, compromised final chapter. But given the palpable quality dip after Silence I’d much rather Mikklesen and Fuller got a chance to meet a fresh Clarice through any medium, TV or cinema, rather than see Hopkins use his one hand to write another new Starling another dirty love letter.

5/10/4

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