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‘Manhunter’ a Terrifying and Disturbing Examination of Voyeurism

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Manhunter is adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, the book which introduced the world to the serial killer known as Hannibal Lecter. It came five years before Harris’s other novel was adapted to the screen (The Silence of the Lambs), and 27 years before the NBC hit crime drama, Hannibal. In between, the role of Dr. Hannibal has been reprised several more times, including Hannibal in 2001 and in the second adaptation of Red Dragon made in 2002 (under the original title). And in late 2006, the novel Hannibal Rising was adapted into the film of the same name, which explained Lecter’s development into a serial killer. Of all these adaptations, Manhunter has become the cult favorite.

This intelligent psychological portrayal of a serial killer and the FBI investigator is both complex and ingenious. The main focus here is entirely on FBI forensics expert Will Graham (William Petersen), and his ability to think like the killers he tracks down. Graham, who is blessed and cursed by an ability to apprehend the workings of the criminal mastermind through psychic empathy, is pulled out of retirement to track down a serial killer, dubbed the ‘Tooth Fairy’. Fascinated by William Blake’s painting Red Dragon, the killer works on a lunar cycle, committing his crimes under the full moon. What makes Michael Mann’s vision of Harris’ novel so incredibly good is that the plot is told from opposite views, based on Graham’s principal role. Although the killer does not appear until midway through the movie, his slant is experienced through Graham’s peerless investigation, leaving us with a disturbing voyeuristic look into the mind of both the criminal and the hunter chasing his prey. Graham is damaged goods thanks to a past encounter with sociopath Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), whose ingenuity and provocative manner have left him psychologically scarred. Unfortunately for Graham, the clock is ticking and the next full moon is closing in. In order to dive deeper into the Tooth Fairy’s mentality, his boss Jack (Dennis Farina) sends Graham to visit Lecktor for some double-edged advice. To their surprise, Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy have formed a deadly alliance.

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Writer/director Michael Mann’s measured approach pays off in spades. Manhunter is a clever race-against-time flick, in which the ticking of the clock is measured in Will’s attempt to retain his own sanity as he forces himself to think more and more like his quarry. Mann lays on the style thick with contrasting color schemes to the seemingly contrary actions of his central characters, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti employs specific colors to emphasize emotional and jointed parallels. Mann and Spinotti deftly employ color to heighten mood resulting in creating tension and uncertainty in the unlikeliest of settings. Graham is mostly shot in minimalist hues of blues and blacks contrasting sharply with the Lector’s clinical white prison surrounding – which itself parallels his outwardly false charm but also contradicts his inward desires. The use of blue on Graham has ironic overtones, as the lunar patterns influence Dollarhyde’s activities. Notice how his wife Molly appears lit in the moonlight, foreshadowing what is to later come. Mann explores all angles here, both visually and emotionally. Using light and shadow to enhance an atmosphere of horror and working with a couple of highly stylized set pieces, the director’s taste for structural beauty is on full display. Shades of green, purple, violet and mauve appear throughout the film and these colors trigger Graham’s brief mental breakdowns; meanwhile, Graham also appears intimidated by the mental hospital’s white walls and those surrounding Hannibal’s jail. The Tooth Fairy’s home is decorated by brights reds and neon greens and the deliberately disorientating climax features mirrors, reflections, painting and lunar landscapes, all aligned with the killer’s master-plan and psychological trauma.

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The score, with music by The Reds and Michael Rubini along with the pulsating soundtrack of pre-existing music from bands such as Red 7, Shriekback, and Iron Butterfly, might seem dated, but in a strange way the music helps elevate the mood. Meanwhile, throughout the film, Mann also makes a deliberate choice to snip out a couple of frames, so that the shots flicker. While these choices won’t please most viewers, they do give the film its own unique sensibility. The movie’s emotional high point features Joan Allen as a physically vulnerable but emotionally strong blind woman named Reba, visiting an anesthetized tiger (perhaps symbolically used a substitute for a dragon). As Reba strokes the animal and puts her head up against his body to hear his heartbeat, Dollarhyde (Tooth Fairy) watches from a distance imagining her touching him. Noonan’s Tooth Fairy is insane of course, but he wasn’t born a monster but made into one as told to us by Graham at one point. Allen is fantastic in the role, playing an assertive female character in a time when they were rarely seen on the big screen. Reba is the only person who can get close to Dollarhyde, and for a brief time, she actually humanizes the man. Dollarhyde finds brief comfort with Reba, associating her with the female clothed by the sun in William Blake’s painting. When Dollarhyde later becomes the victim of his insecurities and imagination, he attempts to sacrifice Reba while positioned over her body in the same way that Blake’s dragon dominates the woman in his painting. Another memorable scene features a brief shot of the sleazy reporter Lounds thundering down a narrow hallway while strapped to a wheelchair lit on fire – as if he spat out of a dragon’s mouth. In addition – the breathtaking chill of Lecktor’s few scenes is enough to qualify Manhunter as a superior film to Silence of the Lambs. Cox’s Hannibal is a masterclass in restraint. His sociopathic killer is much less operatic than Jonathan Demme’s take and Brian Cox’s brilliant portrayal is not only diametrically opposed to Hopkins’s performance, but superior in every way. His Hannibal is far more cunning and terrifying than the campy portrayal in Lambs. And what about the hidden plot…

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In Manhunter, everyone inhabits some kind of prison: Graham’s visit with Lecktor is brilliantly framed, showing in detail the similarity and depth between the two men. There is never any indication that Lecktor will escape here, but regardless of the fact that he is behind bars, Lecktor is just as dangerous if not more, only because he is seen as less of a threat to commit a crime. But Lecktor’s mind games are more central to the plot than one would assume. In the scenes where Will Graham is interviewing Lecktor in his cell, the director took great care to set up the shots so that the position of the bars remain in the same place when the point of view switches. Graham himself is left to communicate with Hannibal in his own cell. The two men are more alike than Graham would like to admit. Cox, who has far less screen time than Anthony Hopkins had in Silence of the Lambs, is just as riveting. Lecktor, of course, has no interest in assisting the F.B.I. in tracking down the Red Dragon. He, in fact, has conceived his own little master-plan.

If only in a few scenes, the suspense is nevertheless excruciating whenever Hannibal appears, making us want to see more of him. Hannibal remains a brooding presence throughout the course of the film, even when offscreen, leaving the minds of viewers scrambling to try to figure out his grand scheme. The scenes in the F.B.I. department with the law enforcers analyzing the documents and clues help elevate the race-against-time suspense while also showing the limitations – and for the time – state of the art technology – that the FBI had at its disposal. Even the simple scenes of Graham moving through the crime scene and talking into his tape recorder are fascinating.

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William Petersen’s performance as the troubled agent is central to the film, and while his character may be less memorable than Hannibal and the Tooth Fairy, he is no less complex. Graham is an archetypal Mann protagonist, and the actor offers a commanding performance crafting a multi-faceted character. The Tooth Fairy is also given much more depth than that typically afforded to serial killers. Tom Noonan makes him unhinged, but at the same time, he can come across as retaining flashes of humanity. But he’s altogether discomfiting to watch, especially in his gentle scenes when his character shows a great deal of pain. The cast overall is stunning – even supporting roles, such as Dennis Farina’s Jack and Stephen Lang’s revolting tabloid journalist Lounds carry weight.

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Like The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter isn’t really about the notorious cannibal – it’s about the unscrupulous psychological effects he has on those who surround him, and how his prowess continues to haunt Graham. Silence Of The Lambs might have gone on to be the film that put Lecktor on the map, but this slick and glossy thriller is every bit as compelling. Manhunter’s last image shows Graham looking at the ocean. It parallels the opening scene where Crawford takes him away from his safe haven. The end can leave us believing that Graham has finally broken free from his traumatic past and achieves a victory allowing him to leave a line of work that nearly destroyed him. Graham removes Dollarhyde from his psyche, but he hasn’t overcome all his dragons. The ocean in front of him confines him just as much as those bars imprison Hannibal. There is much left to do before Graham is free…

– Ricky D

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

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After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

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The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

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Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

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Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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