Manhunter (1986)

Posted: December 1, 2013 in Movie Review
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Manhunter (1986)

Director: Michael Mann

Starring: William Petersen, Kim Griest, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, Tom Noonan

Inside everyone, there lies a darkness. Some are more willing to tap into it than others, and use it to do unspeakable things. Every single day, it feels like, there’s another news story depicting this violence. It doesn’t help matters that the news often treats these evildoers like superstars, like people who deserve fame for being bad. What isn’t as widely publicized are the detectives who use their know-how to catch the bad guys. These are the men who can use their dark side to catch the criminals by thinking as they do.

Will Graham (William Petersen of TV’s “CSI”) spent years as an FBI criminal profiler tracking down the nastiest members of the human race, but he finally ran across one just as smart, if not smarter than him. Hard as it may be to believe, Anthony Hopkins was not the first person to portray the character of Hannibal Lecter. That honor goes Brian Cox, who here is credited as playing “Hannibal Lecktor.” Dr. Lecktor, a psychiatrist, was also secretly a serial killer, and Will caught him almost at the cost of his own life. Now, another man who refers to himself as the Red Dragon (Tom Noonan) is confounding the authorities. Now retired, Will is coaxed by his former superior, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), into helping with the case. Will’s ability to get into the minds of murderers, sympathizing with the young boys they used to be but advocating for their euthanization as adults, is unsettling to everyone around him but is no less effective.

“Manhunter” is the first of two filmed versions of Thomas Harris’s novel, “Red Dragon.” Both adaptations do certain things better than the other. I find the color scheme distracting at times. Office buildings, homes, and even prison cells/prisoner attire are all decked in white. I don’t know the reason for this choice, but it does grab your attention. Certainly, Anthony Hopkins ended up as the definitive Hannibal Lecter, but Brian Cox does just fine with the role. Not an iconic performance, but serviceable, and he only has a few scenes. We don’t learn very much about the man who comes to call himself Red Dragon, and Joan Allen as his blind girlfriend might as well have phoned in her performance as she’s barely even there. This part of the story isn’t as important to “Manhunter,” as its focus is intended to be on the character of Will Graham, hence the title change. William Petersen does a great job conveying his character’s insatiable desire to solve the Red Dragon case, at great risk to both his mind and body.

I have a favorite scene. It is not action-filled, rather it is one of the more calm moments of the movie, although it does give you a little background on what makes Will Graham the person he is. Will and his son have gone to the grocery store to pick up a few items, and this has given them a chance to discuss a few things about Will’s current state of mind. The father is very frank in his answers to his son’s questions, although he does dance around the subject of the kind of thoughts that creep into his mind when he is at his job and thinking like a killer thinks. My real reason for loving this scene is a more nostalgic one. I still have memories of going to the store with either my mother, father, or grandmother back in the 1980’s, and seeing all the product labels as they appeared in 1986 is a wonderful throwback for me.

In the end, the decision to focus “Manhunter” on Will Graham keeps the story simple, and I find that works to its advantage. So many of these movies give center stage to their villains. But here is one that dares to keep the focus on its hero, and shows how that hero could easily become like those he tracks down. That part of himself creeps people out, and it disgusts even him, but he never denies that it’s there.

  1. vinnieh says:

    I’ve seen the other movies featuring Hannibal but for some reason haven’t seen this. That needs to be changed.

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