FlixChatter Review: Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986)

This is the first film where the famous character of Hannibal Lecter (spelled as ‘Lecktor’ in this film), the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer, first appeared on screen. The story is based on Thomas Harris’ novel called Red Dragon. I was curious because of that fact and also because I generally like Michael Mann’s work. It’s also fun to see William Petersen in a similar role of that in his CSI TV show as he’s the protagonist in the film, kind of like Clarice Starling in this film’s sequel The Silence of the Lamb.

Petersen plays Wil Graham, an FBI profiler who uses a unique method of getting into the criminal’s mind in order to catch him. Such a process is effective but obviously takes so much out of him, and also endangers his family’s safety. In fact, after he was attacked by Lecter, Graham retired to Florida. Lecter is now in jail but his former colleague Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) asked him to help with yet another serial killer case, dubbed the ‘Tooth Fairy’ by the police for his signature bite marks he left on the victims.

The opening sequence is downright eerie, with the killer entering a family’s house late at night and shines a flashlight on the couple sleeping on their bed. He zooms in on the female victim for a few minutes waiting for her to wake up. All of the violence happens off-screen, which is the way I prefer it, because we don’t really need to see all the gory happenings in order to feel the impact of the crime. We get to see it when Graham finally agrees to take the case and he pays a visit to the house. Blood splatters all over the room, on the bed, on the wall and the smashed-up mirror graphically depicts just how gruesome the attack was on this poor family. But what’s more disturbing is the constant play of the home video of the family enjoying themselves during breakfast and also frolicking by the pool. Even without knowing who they are, we get this incredible sense of distress as Graham did when he first saw their pictures. That’s why he couldn’t say no to the case.

Another reason I wanted to see this film is the massively-underrated Scottish thespian Brian Cox as Lecter. He’s not in the movie very much, but when he is, he’s very, very good. I kind of like his portrayal and I wish he’d reprise his role in subsequent movies. Sure Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his role in the sequel, and it’s become the role he’s most known for, but I think Cox’s nuanced, less-revealing performance is equally spine-chilling (if not more so) and we haven’t even got to him eating liver with chianti and stuff! Mann effectively showed just how menacing and creepy Hannibal is from Graham reaction after his visit to his jail cell. He runs off like there’s no tomorrow as if Hannibal is right behind him with a scalpel, even though he didn’t even touch the man at all the entire time! Per Wiki, Mann kept the role of Lecktor very short, believing that it was “such a charismatic character that [he] wanted the audience almost not to get enough of him” I think that’s a wise decision.

The rest of the performances are good as well. Petersen is convincing as the gifted profiler, though not too different from his famous TV role in CSI. Tom Noonan is downright creepy even when he displays his childlike innocence with Joan Allen, in a brief but memorable role as a blind woman drawn to a psychopath.

I LOVE Mann’s direction here, I think the quiet intensity he displayed here is most similar to The Insider. It proves that you don’t need big explosions or excessive display of blood and gore to create a sense of suspense and dread. Some people might think this is overly slow with not much going on, but I kind of like the fact that this movie gradually explores the psyche of the mind-hunter and the journey to catching the killer. The use of colors, contrasting dark vs. light shots and fully utilizing music to enhance the atmosphere is quintessentially Mann’s. The level of authenticity is great as well, though of course, being this set in mid 80s, the movie doesn’t age well. It’s a hoot to see just how ‘archaic’ VHS is, but I’m sure our Blu-ray and iPhone would be just as dated a few decades from now, ahah.

But to me, there’s a lot going for it here that makes this one of Mann’s finest work. In fact, I like this better than the more celebrated Silence of the Lambs and I don’t really have interest in seeing the remake made in 2002 with the same name as Harris’ novel.

4 out of 5 reels

Have you seen this movie? Who do you think is the better Hannibal actor?