Manhunter (1986)

5 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I get the feeling that Thomas Harris really gets what it means to set up a gripping murder mystery. In his books “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” Harris creates memorable, three-dimensional characters and brings them on some of the more original mysteries of identifying some of the more original serial killers. For movies to be adapted from these works, it’s important to capture the same sense of suspense, intrigue, and danger. It helps to have an artistic look as well. With “Manhunter,” writer-director Michael Mann brings the novel “Red Dragon” to life and delivers a gritty, tense, stylish thriller with a talented cast and a gripping mystery.

For starters, it has an intriguing main character for us to follow, played with an intense, mesmerizing performance by William Petersen. Petersen plays an FBI agent named Will Graham, a brilliant mind that can enter the mindset of a killer and read into how he acted. But after a breakdown after catching an equally brilliant serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), he went into retirement. But now, he’s called back to help his former FBI superior Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina, in a strong performance) in a new case—a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy because of the bite-marks on his victims.

In one of the more disturbing early scenes, we see Graham as he investigates one of the murders. As he thinks everything through, you feel a great sense of unease because you feel like he is actually thinking like a sick killer himself. He isn’t merely having an epiphany—it’s almost as if he’s thinking of what he would have done if he committed the murder. This makes him an effective anti-hero—always wavering between good and evil, if you will. You know he’s not of a fully stable mind.

The killer, the Tooth Fairy, is Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), an odd person who works at a photo lab where he strikes a relationship with a blind woman, Reba (Joan Allen). We meet him later in the film, when he’s torturing a jackass journalist (Stephen Lang) who printed an article about him that he certainly didn’t agree with. In one of the creepiest scenes in the movie, the journalist is strapped to a wheelchair and has no choice but to tolerate the killer as he goes about his idea of changing into a Red Dragon (inspired by the William Blake paintings). How he does away with the journalist is especially unnerving. And then when you see how he works, and his interaction with Reba who doesn’t know who he really is and likes the way he speaks, it becomes clear that Reba will become the next victim, unless Will can find the killer and save her.

You could say that because you don’t know all that much about the killer and his relationship with Reba is somewhat rushed, then it just seems like another killing for him. While I can agree with the second part (I did want to see more of the Reba character beforehand), I think that of the first part, that you don’t know much about him, just makes him a more chilling villain. You don’t know what he’s thinking, but you know that something can put him on edge anytime and he can kill people. It’s more unnerving when you don’t know much about the killer. You know his motives, you know he’s up to no good, and Tom Noonan delivers a great sense of terror within strangeness.

There’s another killer in this movie—Dr. Hannibal Lecktor, whom was captured and locked away by Graham. Now, Graham requires Lecktor’s insight and assistance in helping him capture the killer, by using his sick mind to figure the Tooth Fairy’s move. Lecktor enjoys playing mind games with Graham, since he believes that they are “just alike,” as they are brilliant minds on the edge of destruction. On top of that, secretly, Lecktor is grudging against Graham and actually figures a way from inside his cell to get to him and his family.

“Manhunter” also allows us to see Graham with his family. The scenes in which his wife (Kim Griest) and his son (David Seaman) are effective because it gives Graham something to live for and something to protect. We care about them and hope nothing bad happens to them, and so we root for Graham to solve the case and catch the killer. In particular, the scene in which Graham talks about his son about why he was sent to the psychiatric hospital ward is very strong with the right element of tenderness.

The story unfolds quite smoothly and we’re involved all the way through, but I wish that the movie would end on something more than a climax featuring a violent showdown between Graham and the killer when they finally meet and try to kill one another. I was hoping for a more psychological element to take over since these two have been developed as mentally-unstable minds, one more than the other. But instead, it’s just a standard climax. Fortunately, it doesn’t shoot the movie in the foot, because of everything that has happened before.

The actors deliver excellent performances. William Petersen, as I’ve said, is mesmerizing as the hero Will Graham, seeking redemption by stopping the actions of a sick mind. Tom Noonan is a chilling villain, Brian Cox is a slimy catch-you-off-guard mad intellectual, Dennis Farina is an intense superior, Stephen Lang is a memorable jackass reporter, Joan Allen makes the most of her scenes, and Kim Griest and David Seaman do good jobs as Graham’s family. The characters are memorable and actors portraying them do great jobs.

The visuals in the film stand out—blank walls, long beaches, and colorful palette make the most of scenes—and while admittedly some of them get a little tiresome after a while, they still stay in your mind. Technical detail is given the appropriate attention in “Manhunter.” And while that doesn’t make it necessarily subtle, it’s still effectively chilling enough. “Manhunter” is a disturbing but active thriller that keeps you invested from beginning to end.

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