(I try not to give too much away, but some things can’t be helped. The short, non-spoiler version is “go ahead and see it if you like this sort of thing, but don’t blame me for what doesn’t work. Everyone else should just rent The Silence Of The Lambs“)
In 1991 the release of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs caused something of a minor cultural revolution. Anthony Hopkins’ magnetic performance did what not even Anthony Perkins could manage – it transformed the serial killer into a cultural archetype with positive overtones, despite the fact that the actions of Jeffery Dahmer became public only five months later. A sweep of the Oscars ensued, and the cinematic Cult of Hannibal emerged. Hannibal Lecter had already made one screen appearance in Manhunter, Michael Mann’s adaptation of Red Dragon, the first Lecter novel by Thomas Harris. Based on the success of the abysmal Hannibal, producer Dino deLaurentiis put a new version of Red Dragon on the fast track, managing to attract a very good cast with Anthony Hopkins as the lure.
I’ll get it off my chest first thing. I liked Manhunter. In some ways I liked it more than The Silence of the Lambs, though comparing the two is pointless. Manhunter is dated, an early film for Michael Mann marred by lack of stylistic restraint, choppy editing and the most terrible music imaginable. It pissed off fans of Harris’ novel, as it deviates wildly from what Harris put to paper, but that’s never bothered me. Brian Cox is my hero; there’s something about Cox’s greasier Lektor (as he’s called in Mann’s film) that appealed to me. But the strength of Mann’s film is his humane treatment of the central character, murderer Francis Dollarhyde, aka The Tooth Fairy. This Red Dragon‘s strengths lie in the same area, but Ratner and deLaurentiis are out to make money through Lecter, who’s given too much screen time. The film does have an interesting story hidden inside it, but that story is eclipsed by the producer’s need to cram more of Hannibal Lecter into the film. Red Dragon works on enough levels that its much more satisfying and ultimately meaningful than Ridley Scott’s flashy, insipid Hannibal, but it’s a decent film marred by a condescending spirit.
I was curious about what ersatz action/comedy director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour and sequel) could do, given a more faithful screenplay (by Ted Tally, screenwriter on Silence) and the strong cast. Ratner was the weak link: “How did this guy get this project?” Watching the film, it’s obvious that he struggled through it in many places, carried along (or shoved forward) by his cast and Tally’s script. The end result is you’ve got a director of one successful franchise moving to another highly successful franchise. The franchise treatment is the downfall, as Tally and Ratner spend valuable time pandering rather than getting to the point. In keeping with the franchise design, Tally’s script is cut from the Silence mold, with a structure that is laughably similar to that film and a final sequence that insultingly reminds the audience that they’re being bled dry by the franchise mentality. I’m surprised the final shot wasn’t an ad for the Silence of the Lambs on DVD. As such, Red Dragon is a film that can never stand on its own, endlessly inviting comparisons to The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter. Ratner uses the latter film as a crutch, in some sequences remaking it shot for shot rather than move into unfamiliar territory, leaning on cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who also shot Manhunter.
Let’s get the basics out of the way so we can get on to the good stuff.
This is a very divided film. On the one hand, Ratner’s storytelling is strictly by the numbers, recalling the ungraceful editing of Manhunter, while on the other some of the performances are quite good, focusing on the human aspects of Harris’ and Tally’s broad characters. Hopkins is solid in Lecter’s now-familiar shoes, aided by the perfect replication of sets from Silence. Edward Norton works surprisingly well as investigator Will Graham. His boyishness left me in doubt at first, but Ratner uses it to play into Tally’s idea of the vulnerable hero, as previously seen via Jodie Foster in Silence. Philip Seymour Hoffman brings a humanity to the tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds, aka the Persistent Desire to See Bad Things. Hoffman’s Lounds is a downtrodden, pathetic character at the lower end of the human spectrum, but he blossoms into a sympathetic, pitiable victim when played into the killer’s hands.
The film opens with a blocky prologue showing how Will Graham simultaneously caught and was victimized by Lecter. It gets the info across but also sets a workmanlike and inelegant tone. A couple of little things from the prologue: Lecter with a pony tail in the slicked-back 80′s yuppie style? No. And a prop thing — the handwriting that purports to be Lecter’s in the book Graham finds is all wrong. Lecter would never need to write in a book and if he did, the writing wouldn’t be that unrefined scrawl. Are these trivial details? To some, but they also indicate that Ratner didn’t have enough of a handle on a major character to reject a detail like that. But the sequence is useful, because in it Graham and Lecter relate as equals; it’s the strongest scene between the two.
We move on to a newspaper headline montage that’s intended to recall the opening from Seven, but instead more closely resembles the lurid, cartoonish “Hush Hush” montage that leads off LA Confidential. The film follows the now-retired Graham as he’s coerced back into the FBI by Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel, providing key support) to help the Bureau find the Tooth Fairy, a calculating killer of families. In doing so, Graham gets more and more involved with the case, ultimately recruiting the help of Hannibal Lecter before coming to the attention of the Tooth Fairy via the antics of Freddie Lounds. Meanwhile, our killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Ralph Fiennes, fighting being directed into stiffness, saddled with facial applications) is finding love with Reba McClaine (Emily Watson) and questioning whether or not he needs to go on with his process of transformation, enacted through murder.
Lets also get this out of the way: Red Dragon is not about Hannibal Lector. Just get over it. All of this Cult of Hannibal crap is occasionally entertaining, but there was a time when he was just a very good way to get across the fact that Will Graham and Clarice Starling have to wallow in the mud in order to do their jobs. Lector is a wonderful image of America coming out of the eighties and in Silence he knows exactly what his audience (Starling, and us) wants and refuses to give it up, something that Ridley Scott and now Brett Ratner should have heeded. Jonathan Demme exercised an incredible restraint when making The Silence of the Lambs, leaving out a lot of the gore that Harris threw around. Brett Ratner falls victim to the Cult of Hannibal when he delivers the gore; he doesn’t know when it’s useful and when it becomes exploitation.
Where Ratner shocks us with flash-frames of mirror-socketed women, Mann had it right. Graham falling asleep on a plane, inadvertently exposing a young girl to the horror of his evidence photos, in one scene telling us everything we need to know about what these crimes look like and describing the differences between our world and Graham’s. There’s no need to barrage the audience with some of the images in Red Dragon; Dollarhyde is demon enough without the continual reminders Ratner provides. I’m assuming he’s giving the audience what he believes they want and he should be smarter than to succumb. In Hannibal it was quickly obvious that there was no story, so the only way to watch it was as a horror equivalent of a Bond picture: just give me Hannibal, being Hannibal. But there is a story in Red Dragon, and the gore obscures it.
The core of that story is Francis Dollarhyde and the forces that motivate him to kill. An abused child, he fantasizes about becoming powerful, Blake’s Red Dragon imagery an idealization, killing to retroactively act out against a domineering grandmother. Yeah, the domineering grandmother. It’s a cinema cliche, and is expressed no better or worse than in any other film, but Red Dragon does manage to create a plausibly motivated creature out of Dollarhyde, so we’ll run with it.
Dollarhyde is a perfect image of emerging male sexuality. He sees himself as an undesirable misfit, ostracized from society. We’ve got to assume that he’s a virgin, outside the context of whatever impulses he inflicts upon his victims. He uses violence, imagery and the act of seeing to attain a measure of sexual power – all plausible links to pornography and the media depiction of sexuality. When at last he meets a woman willing to take him for who he is, Dollarhyde encounters a dilemma; all this time he’s been murdering to attain personal and sexual power, and suddenly, he doesn’t have to do it anymore. A woman he’s attracted to returns his affections, rendering moot everything he’s done up until this point. Yet he watches pornography as he has his first sexual relationship with her. Can these two sexual ideas co-exist, the ‘real’ and the pornographic? Which does he prefer? This is strong stuff, but Ratner and Tally don’t know how to handle it once the ideas are out there. Instead, they take the easy road, cutting back to a funny scene with Lecter, who’s been downgraded to comic relief through social assimilation. (For a good example of this refer to the scene in the gym, in which Lecter lunges freely at Graham before being pulled up short by a chain, or puppet string, that extends into the sky.)
Ratner tries to force Ralph Fiennes into a stony serial-killer facade, but he breaks through it whenever possible, particularly in scenes with Emily Watson. The two have a disquieting chemistry; one of the liveliest scenes in the film plays in Dollarhyde’s living room, as the two tighten their sexual orbits around one another before a series of locked-off camera angles. Their two performances are the best in the film, and it’s nothing but a shame that Ratner and Tally choose instead to enact more funny but pointless scenes with Lecter.
Further, the film hints at but doesn’t explore the idea of a life-cycle of violence. To save his son, Graham uses the same abusive tactics experienced by Dollarhyde. It works, but what is the consequence? His son, verbally abused in the heat of a particularly impressionable moment? Despite any rational assessment of his father’s motives, this kid will be forever scarred by the same force that created a murderous deviant in Dollarhyde. This chapter of the film closes with an image that promises little hope: Graham and family on a boat, isolated from the society that’s threatened to destroy them more than once. This is not healing, or progress, but an unremittingly dark ending to an already grim tale. That it’s followed by a superfluous chapter announcing the arrival of Clarice Starling exemplifies the film’s submission to the commandments of franchise.