Are there fresh horrors to learn about Hannibal Lecter? Actually, yes, as the opening minutes of Red Dragon confirm. The good doctor, hosting a post-concert dinner for certain connoisseurial types like himself, distributes a delicate-looking dish to the assembled, and as he turns to sit down we glimpse (cue rising scream) a short ponytail at his nape. Oh dear. It suggests that even an evil genius is capable of grave mistakes. Admittedly, as far as his guests are concerned, this offence doesn't rank with being served human sweetbreads, recently excised from the faltering flautist they'd listened to that evening. But a small carelessness does allow FBI investigator Will Graham (Edward Norton) to catch Lecter out and, in spite of traumatic stab wounds, to put him behind bars.
That scene, one of the most disturbing in Thomas Harris's original novel, is adapted as part of the film's prologue. It's done pretty well, though the screenwriter Ted Tally for some reason decides to ignore the key detail that allows Lecter to sneak up behind Graham and slip the knife in: he was in stockinged feet. The idea of him calmly removing his shoes before going at his victim with a lino knife struck me so keenly at the time of reading that the scene has lingered 12 years on, and relates to why this adaptation, for all its incidental felicities, never truly reproduces that authentic shiver of dread: there are knives galore, but there are no surprises – no stockinged feet.
It maybe doesn't help that this is the second bite at the book, the first being Michael Mann's insidiously oppressive Manhunter in 1986. The reason for remaking it is simple: Anthony Hopkins was eventually persuaded to do Hannibal a third time. I'm glad he's given the role another chance, otherwise we might have been left with the memory of his last stab at it in Ridley Scott's Hannibal, a film that more or less shredded the feral otherness he embodied in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and left in its place a kind of avuncular campery. Those performances roughly marked the difference between Count Dracula and Jeeves. Chronologically, Red Dragon predates Silence, and Hopkins has accordingly pared down the flamboyance and cranked up the menace, still standing ramrod-straight in his cell and sniffing the air with a wolfish malevolence: he identifies Graham's "cheap aftershave" as a present from his young son.
That Graham is consulting the Doctor at all is due to the pressure of a hideous deadline. A serial killer, The Tooth Fairy, has ritually slaughtered two families, each on the night of a full moon; the next one is due in three weeks, and FBI chief Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) knows that only Will Graham's gift for projecting himself into deviant psychologies can unlock the case in time to stop the killer. Graham, conversely, knows that the surest clues must be gleaned from within the dark labyrinths of Hannibal's mind. Soon, down in the subterranean gloom of Lecter's prison cage, tense rallies of hatred are crackling between the two men. "You think you're smarter than I am, don't you, Will?" "No, I don't think I'm smarter than you." "Then how did you catch me?" "I just had you at a disadvantage." "And what was that?" "You're insane." Fifteen-love.
Brett Ratner, previously known for the Jackie Chan Rush Hour movies, may not have seemed the ideal choice for director, but he does a competent job here. If he hasn't caught the chill of foreboding with which Jonathan Demme imbued The Silence of the Lambs, he does at least have a first-rate cast, one of whom, Anthony Heald as the damply self-seeking Dr Chilton, makes a welcome return. It is a keynote of Harris's books that stupidity and sleaziness are more contemptible than evil, which at least has the stylish individuality of an artist, albeit a nutso artist. This comparative moral scheme in Red Dragon divides between an unscrupulous tabloid hack, Freddy Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), a psychopathic loner obsessed by William Blake's Auguries of Innocence and the concept of "transforming" himself and his victims – he leaves shards of mirrored glass in their dead eyes. But at least he doesn't write lies for a newspaper.
It hardly comes as a surprise that Dolarhyde has recently found a sympathetic correspondent in Dr Hannibal Lecter. Harris himself exercises a remarkable sympathy towards his killer; in the novel he had a long chapter detailing Dolarhyde's abused childhood, whittled down here to a few fragments but nevertheless unequivocal in casting him as a tortured soul. Fiennes, hare-lipped and eerily still, is convincingly stricken as the schizoid "transformer", touched by the vulnerability of a blind co-worker (Emily Watson) yet hounded by voices enjoining him to slay her. The growling, sedated tiger whose fur Watson lovingly strokes might be the most symbolic animal in movies since the slaughtered bull in Apocalypse Now.
All of this is quite absorbing, without ever being very frightening. In terms of violence Ratner has cleaved to Demme's restraint in Silence rather than to Scott's more aesthetic luxuriating in Hannibal, and it's a wise move; there is something far more unsettling in the decorous glimpse of a crime-scene photograph than any artful tableau of dead flesh. Norton, having survived Lecter's knife, doesn't really convey much sense of being scarred (figuratively at least) by his experiences, and has less the air of an interrogating psychologist than a hotelier dealing with difficult guests. The clammy terror that underscored Jodie Foster's descent into the dark was the heartbeat of a great horror movie 12 years ago, back when Hannibal gave people the creeps. Times change. Nowadays people just do impersonations of him.
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