There exists a Michael Mann film that clocks in under two hours.
I am sure there are others, but I had been putting off watching 1986’s Manhunter because I didn’t know if I wanted to make the commitment to a Michael Mann film. I’d also seen it before, having watched it back in high school, but it had been sitting in my Netflix DVD queue for years. Then it was shipped my way months ago and sat on my DVD shelf. And now … here we are.
If you’re not familiar with Manhunter, it’s an adaptation of Red Dragon, Thomas Harris’ first Hannibal Lecter novel, and is about how Will Graham–the FBI profiler who caught Lecter (and was critical injured while doing so) is pulled out of retirement by his old boss, Jack, to help solve a series of gruesome serial murders committed by a guy that is being referred to as “The Tooth Fairy.” Graham’s method as a profiler is to re-trace the movements of the killer at a murder scene and go deep inside his head. It’s dangerous work because of the way it leads him to experience emotional trauma, and while Jack knows that, the FBI is desperate because these are murders of entire families who have no connection to one another.
Our killer, by the way, is named Francis Dolarhyde, an employee of a film processing plant who has not only been planning and committing these brutal crimes but is also surreptitiously communicating with Lecter. They’re not teaming up; rather, Dolarhyde is a fan of Lecter’s and Hannibal is taking advantage of that devotion to have fun at the expense of the detective who caught him.
That’s the gist of the plot, which stays pretty close to the novel for the most part, but does diverge in a few important places, mainly not giving us as much of Dolarhyde as Harris’ book does (he really gets inside the guy’s head in a way that makes him one of the more interesting serial killers in pop culture), and altering the ending. But even if you aren’t familiar with the novel, you would have no problem engaging with the plot.
William Pederson (of CSI fame) plays Graham, Tom Noonan plays Dolarhyde, and Dennis Farina plays Jack in a film that looks so 1986, you wouldn’t have bene surprised to see Crockett and Tubbs roll up at one point. The settings all have that 80s modernist sheen to them, Pederson seems constantly dressed in that dirty, flecky black-and-gray pattern that was used on sport coats and countertops, and everyone’s pants are pleated beyond pleated. The soundtrack is synth, and the tones are soft at times. If you accept all that, you’ll be fine.
Even if you look at it and think, “Shit, this looks dated“, you’ll forget about that because the performances are good. Pederson can be a little too much at times, but I think he does a great job at conveying the detachment that Graham needs to solve the case. Noonan is creepy as hell as Dolarhyde, especially during the moments where he romances Reba, his blind co-worker who is played by Joan Allen. It’s weird and detached and yet he’s possessive of her. And Farina is great–then again, I’m a mark for Dennis Farina.
Now, Brian Cox plays Hannibal Lecter here–this movie was a full five years before Silence of the Lambs–and he’s really solid. Cox is very good at playing arrogants, and here he gives us a Lecter who is pompous, taunting, and even physically intimidating. Heightening the tension in his scenes is the way that he shows respect for Graham as a sparring partner, which makes him push harder and be more direct than, say, how Hopkins is with Jodie Foster. You can clearly see how much these two hate one another and how much it pains Graham to consult Lecter for help.
Over the years, Manhunter has been eclipsed in the Hannibal Lecter series by other media, including a Red Dragon adaptation starring Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins. Despite this, and its obvious Eighties-ness, the film holds up very well and is a tight thriller that is worth watching. If you happen to come across it, give it a try.
Watch or Skip?