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Hannibal, Schmannibal

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Oh, Hannibal. So full of promise. Two characters we love, duelling it out with some sort of unspeakable attraction hovering between them. And more of what’s become the most famous performance of Anthony Hopkins’ already impressive career. But…no. It’s a crap film, with way too much time devoted to flash, kicking aside all of Ridley Scott’s talk about image serving the story. It seems that as long as his visual ego is served everything will be fine. True, the film has a couple of points to recommend it, primarily Hopkins’ performance. I find him to be much more relaxed in the role here than in Silence of the Lambs; he just seems to inhabit Lecter a lot better, with less work. On DVD, I spent a lot of time with the deleted scenes on the second disc which include a couple of nice little bits of Hopkins as manipulator. It’s all material that truly doesn’t fit in the film, because of the larger context, but that’s a shame, as some of it is quite good. Not that it would help.

The one really solid bit in Hannibal is the Venice sequence. The simple cat-and-mouse setup works perfectly, especially since we’ve been waiting years to see Lecter calmy take someone down. We know what’s going to happen, so there’s an entertaining amount of suspense involving exactly how it’s going to happen. Sadly they’re really the only suspenseful scenes in the picture – other potential suspense sequences become instead spots where the audience is scared about how much gore they might see (not much, despite the complaints of many) but I can’t really count that as suspense, more like anticipation of revulsion. It’s kind of like waiting over the toilet to vomit. There’s a better way to do things — splatter is well and good, but this could have been much more. It may be that I like the Venice scenes only in contrast to the rest of the film; in a better film that sequence wouldn’t stand out as much.

The problem with the gore is that some of it represents events that would be more frightening verbally relayed — I’m thinking particularly about Verger’s recollection of his maiming at Lecter’s hands. Played between Oldman and Moore the scene could be really powerful, but as it appears it’s just flash, a shame. Either play it as a tight conversation, or cut to it played straight. None of this funhouse music video crap, thank you. As it stands, the flashback stands to ensure the audience knows it’s Oldman playing Verger. While the Maison Verger story might have worked for the book, it just fails in this script as there’s never really any threat – it’s all just a set of shameless plot devices. Even the pigs generate little fear; given their place in the film’s timeline, they just can’t pose a real threat to any character we care about. It’s a subplot that should have been dropped or radically altered to better augment the FBI plotline.

As it is, with the interaction of the Verger plot, the mechanisms of the FBI fall completely flat. I see nothing in those plot elements but writers who couldn’t figure any other way to make things happen. I just don’t buy the treatment of Starling. Ray Liotta’s character serves only one purpose – to unite the audience and Lecter, which should’ve happened long ago. If, by the end of the film, Liotta needs to be talking about “corn-pone pussy” to get me to cheer for Lecter, failure has already occurred. It’s funny to have Lecter — murderer, cannibal — be upstaged in the evil department by sexist and power-focused beaurocrats. If that’s Scott’s point, that the calculating, power-mad side of human nature is more insidiously dangerous than Lector’s refined animalism, well…whatever. I’d be happy with a simple suspense film, which I didn’t get. Please, just give me Lecter being smarter than everyone but weakened by desire for Starling. That’s all we need. It’s simple, and that’s what I paid to see.

Most of the visual bloat of the film is the result of Scott covering his ass while shooting. It’s apparent that there were many unmade script decisions regarding the ending and certain (mostly deleted) subplots. Scott had to shoot in such a way that he could add or subtract at will, and that slows the film, watering down what little sense of purpose it has. Despite the title, which indicates we are to see a real portrait of this fascinating figure, there are still too many distracting side-roads, like the studio was too afraid to commit to a full-on take on Lecter. No surprise, but it’s kinda fun to see a studio’s gutless, ass-covering money-grubbing antics backfire occasionally; the film would have done much better business had it a true sense of purpose. The business Scott relates in the commentary about not explicitly showing Lecter corrupting people is crap. That’s what he does. Or, more directly, he shortcuts people to their true nature, which he sees as brutish and debased. He’s not compassionate and trying to make him so is studio cowardice.

It’s probably also worth noting that by the final third of the film, my friends and I would greet every person to walk on-screen with cries of “Eat him! Eat him!”. I’d say they’d lost us.

[This entry represents a slight revision of an earlier write-up at The Pork Store]
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