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First Principles, Clarice

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There are some films destined to win Oscars, taking on piles of accolades for their cast and crew for months to come afterwards. And there are films where everybody that’s getting an Oscar already has it or was robbed of it.

Red Dragon won’t be getting any Oscars – but the cast certainly has plenty of acting accolades to throw around, and the film is best viewed as a scenery chewing contest, where each actor does his level best to outdo the amazing performance you saw just moments ago.

The loser in the contest – outside of Harvey Keitel, who got no material and gave none – was, suprisingly, Anthony Hopkins. It’s not that he’s lost his magic, or that anybody noticed that he’s grown old, not young, since he gave his landmark performance in Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins was simply handed the Peter Lorre part in this script – an eccentric, involving character with a sense of menace that fades the moment the camera moves off him. Unlike Silence, you do not feel Lector throughout the movie – there are other matters to occupy your attention.

Lector is used in Red Dragon the same way he was used in Silence, as a sort of depraved and self-interested Oracle of Delphi, dispensing advice in vague riddles and cryptic formulations. On the other side of the glass is not a rookie FBI agent, but a seasoned veteran of the force, the man who took Lector down himself: Will Graham, played here in a suprising turn by Edward Norton. (The audience is forced, in scenes with the two of them, to reconcile the fact that Hopkins, too old, is looking right at Norton, too young.) Norton is the workhorse of the film, carrying the burden that ties the disparate elements of the film together. There are moments, however, when he is let to shine, and he manages to upstage Hopkins once or twice.

Emily Watson, as the blind photodeveloper, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as the bottom-feeding tabloid journalist, bring an odd sort of diversity to Red Dragon. In Hoffman’s character, we get to see the characters interacting with the world outside their macabre underworld – obviously, people are interested in portrayals of these killers, and those who stalk them (we are, or we wouldn’t be there), and Hoffman’s emotional breakdown is a perfect foil.

Watson, on the other hand, is the closest we get in the, for lack of a better term, Lector trilogy (Manhunter, the film that this is a remake of, called him Lektor, so we can safely exclude that with the phrase) to a sympathetic everyman. She gives a very convincing portrayal of a blind woman, and unlike any of the non-Starling women in the series, we have an emotional connection with her when she is finally thrust into peril.

In Silence, and later Hannibal, the man was elevated from his small role in the original novel, eventually reaching the height of co-protagonist in Hannibal. Ted Levine gave a wonderfully creepy, yet small and undeveloped, performance as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in Silence; Gary Oldman’s Mason’ Verger in Hannibal was more memorable for sardonic lines like “Nobody beats the Riz” than any sort of malice.

But in Red Dragon, the title character is not the delightful cannibal, or the woman who relates with him, but the killer we don’t know. Ralph Fiennes utterly steals the show as Francis Dollarhyde, who bridles at the title the press gives him. (Gumb was “Buffalo Bill” because he “skinned his humps”; Dollarhyde was the Tooth Fairy because of the bites he inflicted on his victims.) Fiennes simultaniously goes for broke in threatening the landmark performance of the serial killer genre, Norman Bates’s career-ending performance in Psycho and manages to imbue even such lines as “Open your eyes, or I will staple your eyelids to your forehead” with a chilling menace.

What holds this all together is a story, pulled from Harris’s first novel featuring Lector, that is probably the best out of the three. Silence will long be remembered as the first and the finest film (while Micheal Mann fans everywhere kick puppies in desperation); but Dragon has the most developed plotting and characters of them.

All of which was essentially handed to director Brett Rattner on a platter. It’s hard to judge him by this film – he could have sat in his trailer all day, for all we know. The film might have been better if he had done so, for all we know. All we do know is that he could have righteously screwed this up and he didn’t. I suppose that’ll do, for now.

Red Dragon passes the acid test – it will not disappoint most fans of Silence of the Lambs, those who enjoyed Hannibal or those who did not. It will keep you in suspense for much of its running time. The film is truly a triumph of the hams.

For two other views of the film, see here and here.

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About Colin Wyers

  • Ach, Colin. I posted my review just after yours – didn’t see that you had one up already. Not tryin’ to step on you, here…