Movie sequels, as a general rule, get down on their knees and give the audience bad road head. The audience sits there with their pants open and daydreams about what the first film was like instead of looking at the whore slurping away in their laps. And those are the better sequels. The really horrible ones just cop a feel through your trousers and call it a day.
To misquote the late, great Raymond Chandler just a bit, “Movies are like a kiss. The first is magical. The second is routine. The third one, you take the girl’s clothes off.”
In that vein, then, Hannibal is a breath of fresh air. The Silence of the Lambs was a slow, seducing waltz, and as the final curtain goes down on it, you and the film head off to the back for a little hanky-panky. Well, it takes ten years to get there, and when you get there you find out that your playmate is a little on the wild side – whips and leather and chains, oh my. And maybe that’s not your thing. But Hannibal at least tries to seduce you on its own terms.
Can you imagine how easy it would have been to let Hannibal just coast on Silence’s buildup? If you can’t, go see just about any sequel. For nearly any sequel, you have to have seen the original first. They are derivative works, and this weakness just pervades them throughout. Hannibal doesn’t feel that same way. The events of Silence of the Lambs are treated as a sort of best left alone prologue, and the film begins in medias reis.
The psychologist Pavlov once trained dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell. It’s the concept of conditioning. Movie critics aren’t just conditioned, they’re like the POWs in The Manchurian Candidate, smoking yak dung and thinking it’s tobacco. They manage to convince themselves that the job of a sequel is bad road head, that they want bad road head, and when they show up to Hannibal and instead find a film that wants to work you a bit, they turn running.
Admit it – you liked Hannibal Lector. Yes, you, fuckstick! Yes, I’m talking to you! You thought he was cool. You thought he was suave and debonair. You were charmed. You thought that his cannibalism was some sort of weird tic, something he tried struggling with but just ended up accepting.
You were charmed by his intelligence. Hannibal shows you that academically, he is the same as he is culinary – obsessed with the dark, macabre secrets of the underworld, a twisted sort, who isn’t a well-cultured sicko, but somebody who has cultured their own sickness into a tart little dish.
An example, from uber-critic Roger Ebert: “In Hannibal, Lecter can move freely, and that removes part of the charm. By setting him free to roam, the movie diminishes his status from a locus of evil to a mere predator. He can escape from traps seemingly at will, but that misses the point. He is never more sympathetic here than when he’s strapped to a cruciform brace and about to be fed, a little at a time, to wild boars. His voice at that point sounds a note of pity for his tormentors, and we remember the earlier Lecter.”
Charm? Sympathetic? Ok, in real life, if you ever meet a guy that kills people and eats them, you gonna be charmed? You gonna feel sympathy? Bull fucking shit you are. You’re going to plug the sucker with a .45 and beat his still-smoking body with the butt until you’re 100 percent satisfied that you are not the entrée, that you do not go well with some nice Chiante and some fava beans.
Silence and Hannibal are both art. But the first uses its art to soften some of the rough edges, to keep us at a safe distance from the darkness. Hannibal uses its art to render Hannibal Lector without excuses, without the novel’s plodding attempt to explain him away.
I admit that if I had seen the film when it first came out, when I had no distance from any expectations from it, I probably would have rejected it. It was not the film that Silence builds up to. And, yes, I loved Silence of the Lambs. But Hannibal makes me question that love. And that’s bold. Sequels are supposed to reaffirm the first act, not make you think about it, ask yourself why you care about it. It’s a sequel that has tough love for its predecessor, not blind love.
Much ado has been made about the difference between Jonathan Demme and Ridley Scott; about how one brought empathy to the project, while the other brought none. But could Demme have made as good a Hannibal as Scott? I don’t think so. He made his case for the characters. He said what he had to. He went off and made insipid tearjerkers starring Oprah Winfrey. He would have walked on the set, counted his greenbacks, and churned out another film, with no magic at all.
Scott brings something new – he doesn’t fall in love with the doctor. He doesn’t empathize. He finds a brutal man and documents him, bare before us, a monster pure and simple. It is, in this age where so many can worry about what conditions made Osama bin Laden what he is, a bold statement. What makes evil men evil is that they are evil. It’s a straight line that goes right through you and rips you clean in two.
It is a sequel that takes risks – and even if some of them may not pay off, the fact that it takes them is alone worth it.