Hannibal Lecter has successfully transcended the typical American serial killer persona to become, as much as a serial killer can, an icon of his time. To be sure, Lecter cannot count his laurels from his modus operandi. His murderous methods make Jack the Ripper look like a saint. The Ripper cut his victims’ throats and mutilated them; Lecter eats them, after cooking and marinating them in the best Bolognese sauce.
But while cannibalism evokes the idea of the primitive, Lecter is portrayed both in the books and in the movies as a man of the most impeccable taste and culture. In The Silence of the Lambs, and in Hannibal, Lecter has an air of class around him. As played by the redoubtable Sir Anthony Hopkins, Lecter is an art connoisseur who would rather visit the opera house than the sleazy sailor’s bars that his fellow criminals frequent. Lecter is a criminal with a PhD, and far more erudite and knowledgeable than his officious pursuers. That his mouth may have tasted human flesh many a time is almost unimaginable, so cultured is the accent that emanates from the same source.
In Red Dragon, Director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, The Family Man) rectifies the mistakes of Hannibal, which suffered from a surfeit of gore. It isn’t that Red Dragon is lacking in violence; it too has enough spattering of blood to fill your bath tub, but at least Hannibal is not shown helping himself to a generous portion of barbecued brain tissue.
Red Dragon opens with a symphony concert; the audience has a troubled Hannibal in its midst. He is frowning because one of the flutists is playing all the wrong notes. Hannibal is not pleased, the flutist duly disappears, and in an absolute masterpiece of a scene, a guest is heard asking Hannibal at dinner “What is this marvelous dish we are having?” Hannibal, in his usual cultured tone, replies, “If I tell you, you won’t have it.”
Despite the bang of the initial Hannibal scenes, the good doctor does not play a prominent role in the movie. He occupies not more than half an hour of screen time, though the time is well spent and is enough to shade the entire film with a sinister aura. Ratner knows the strength in Hannibal’s evil charisma and the potential limitations in Hannibal’s overexposure. The balance is well kept throughout, with Hannibal appearing only intermittently to help FBI officers, and keeping with tradition, to taunt and harm them as well.
This time around, Edward Norton (Primal Fear, American History X) plays the harassed FBI agent, Will Graham, responsible for putting Hannibal in prison. Norton’s boyish innocence contrasts nicely with the smooth elegance of Hannibal’s malevolence. They meet frequently in circumstances almost identical to the Anthony Hopkins-Jodie Foster meetings in Silence of the Lambs, and talk about the same things: deranged serial killers (the term is an oxymoron). But the scenes nevertheless retain their sparkle because this time around, there are different shadings to the personalities. Hopkins seems much more relaxed, and gets more out of wittily needling Norton than out of tearing his prison guard’s limbs. Since this is a prequel, one can only assume that he is gathering steam for his later exploits. Norton essays his role with more vulnerability than did Jodie Foster, and in some scenes, Norton’s Graham is more than anything else in deathly fear of Hannibal; there is none of that objective curiosity that Jodie Foster’s character exhibited in her first meeting with Hannibal. Arresting Hannibal nearly cost Graham his life and he has taken early retirement. But once again, he has to seek Hannibal’s assistance in capturing another serial killer, the Red Dragon.
Red Dragon is the pen name (or perhaps the knife name, in this case) of a video store employee, Francis Dolarhyde, played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The End of the Affair), investing his role with both fury and helplessness. Dolarhyde plays the cat and mouse game with Graham, but this is one confused cat. In between disposing of families for no apparent reason, he finds time to romance a blind woman, Reba McClane (Emily Watson). In most serial killer movies, the romance would have been a jarring interlude, making for an unwelcome intrusion into the mayhem and gore. But, in part due to a smartly paced script, and in part due to the perspicacity of Rattner’s direction, the doomed love seamlessly takes the movie into its more tender moments. Reba cannot see Dolarhyde, but can only feel him, and his sadness. Her blindness serves as a metaphor for her love, which is unconditional and naive. When Red Dragon is courting her, he takes her to a sedated tiger in a veterinarian clinic, and the look of happiness on Reba’s face when she touches the growling tiger is so genuine, you forget it’s a movie at all.
A large part of the film belongs to the tussle between the Red Dragon and Graham, interspersed with some darkly comic pronouncements by Hannibal Lecter. But amidst this high voltage acting, look out for a cameo performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Almost Famous, Magnolia). He plays the part of a sleazy reporter, and entertains the audience with his slothful expressions and unkempt clothes. It’s another example of how even the smallest roles have been portrayed with obvious commitment, setting the tone for the rest of the performances in what is a virtuoso feat among new releases this fall season.
– Nigam Nuggehalli