MANHUNTER VS. RED DRAGON

AGENT WILL GRAHAM

Despite his place as the hero, there’s a dark side to FBI Agent Will Graham. He’s complex, ambiguous, nuanced. Not the usual dullard good guy. Hannibal pretty much sums it up in Red Dragon when he says: “You’re able to assume the emotional point of view of other people. Even those who might scare or sicken you.” That, in a nutshell is Graham. A man who can empathize with the worst of us, only with the extra horror of understanding these hideous thoughts through pity, remorse and the hindsight of sanity.

The guy’s gotta be tons of fun at parties, huh?

I can’t imagine a more perfect actor than William Petersen for the role. The man oozes intensity even when at rest. He’s got that thing where if he frowns just the right way it looks like his eyes are staring into your soul. He plays Graham as a man who has never known a good night’s sleep in his life; haunted by the sickest thoughts you could imagine. The unhealthy relationship between cops and criminals have always fascinated Michael Mann so I can imagine that this character (and his relationship with the good Doctor) was the main reason for him to choose the Harris novel as his first post-”Miami Vice” theatrical project. The concept of the good guy/bad guy being two faces of the same coin can’t get more literal than this.

Edward Norton, on the other hand, seems an odd choice as Graham. Although, after having seen “Red Dragon”, I have to admit that there are few actors that could have played it quite as interestingly. He brings this wounded quality to the role that Petersen doesn’t. Norton looks as if he’s about to be overcome by emotion at any second and that his grasp on sanity is tenuous at best. He’s more fragile than Petersen. This is a very different take on the role since it highlights his kinship with both Dolarhyde and Lecter. There was darkness within Graham in Manhunter, but it was obvious that it was something that only haunts the character in his thoughts and dreams, and nowhere else. With Norton, we’re not so sure that Graham couldn’t snap.

“Manhunter” provides the best Graham because of screenwriter Ted Tally’s (or more likely the producers) unfortunate choice to make Graham more of a loner in the remake. This is counter to everything that makes him tick. Graham’s family shouldn’t just be extras in the background or hostages for the bad guy in the climax; they’re his whole world. Without them Graham is just a Lecter who obeys the rules of society. Mann wisely kept them as essential characters in his film. In “Red Dragon” they’re pushed too far back.

THE GREAT RED DRAGON

They call him The Tooth Fairy or Francis Dolarhyde, but his true name is The Red Dragon.

Like Will Graham, Francis Dolarhyde (Dollarhyde in “Manhunter”) doesn’t just sing one note to the viewer. Even though he is very much the villain, there are levels inside his twisted psyche. On the one hand he butchers entire families to satisfy his fantasies, yet on the other we feel that there’s deep regret behind those hideous acts.

At first glance Thomas Harris’s decision to slip in a romantic subplot between Francis Dolarhyde and a blind character named Reba McClane could seem like pointless titillation. However, it’s so essential to understanding Dolarhyde that it’s absence would ruin any adaptation of the novel into film, every moment that Dolarhyde spends with Reba offers us a peek inside. So it’s obviously present in both “Manhunter” and “Red Dragon”.

Matching William Petersen for pure intensity the imposing Tom Noonan projects menace just by standing around. Yet beyond the menace is a kind of shame and sadness about him, as if Noonan’s Dollarhyde wishes that he could take it all back. As far as depth goes, Noonan just doesn’t get as much to do as his nemesis. Michael Mann is more interested in the hero than the villain and unwisely chose to let the character be a cipher throughout the film, rushing through most of his scenes. The courtship Dollarhyde has with Reba, for example, feels fake and glossed over; as if someone lost the key footage. It goes like this: he meets her, takes her to see a tiger (without explanation) and then invites her home where they have sex. That’s about it. Now, I understand the need for trimming, but this is a bit much. If you haven’t read the book (or at least watched the remake), it won’t make any sense at all to you and feels completely arbitrary.

Not having Noonan’s stature, Ralph Fiennes doesn’t project the menace of the former. However, Ted Tally’s script shows more curiosity towards the character and we get to know him a whole lot better. The only downside is that too much is made of Dolarhyde’s attempts to stop killing which leads to a pointless scene of him traveling all the way to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to eat the William Blake painting of The Great Red Dragon and The Woman Clothed in Sun. In the novel it’s explained that Dolarhyde believes that he’s becoming the physical manifestation of the Dragon and thinks that by eating the canvas he’ll kill the beast and, by extension, his desire to kill. However, the scene is too short in the film to get the point across clearly. It’s muddled overkill and should never have made it into the final cut.

Who does it better? “Red Dragon”, no contest. Ted Tally’s Dolarhyde works better because the scared and pathetic side of the man comes out more. In “Manhunter” he’s this ghost and you have to really make the effort to look beyond the menace and silence to see the same things that Tally offers in a more comprehensive manner.

That said, there are two moments with Dollarhyde in “Manhunter” that I like better. There’s the infamous “Dash Ripping” scene near the very end where Dollarhyde goes to Reba’s place and sees her with another man then casually reaches out and rips his van’s dash apart with his bare hands while the haunting “Strong as I am” by the Prime Movers plays on the soundtrack. Right after this scene is another good one. Dollarhyde kills the man who drove Reba home and knocks at her door. When she asks who it is. He just answers: “It’s me.” She opens the door and goes “Francis?” and Dollarhyde answers. “No, not Francis. Francis is gone. Francis is gone… forever.”

Creepy shit.

Still, “Red Dragon” beats out “Manhunter”. Tom Noonan is an excellent and underrated actor, but Mann’s script sadly doesn’t give him much to work with.

FLAWS? WHAT FLAWS?

I’m hard pressed to really find anything without sounding like a nitpicking asshole, but…

The Ratner film is straight out of Hollywood. Which means that there is the nasty tendency to go for the BIG moment when a smaller one would do. Nothing so bad that it’d make you hate the film, but when compared to “Manhunter” and “Silence of The Lambs” it’s noticeable. The worst offenders are an intrusive musical sting when Graham visits the first victim’s house and sees the bloody bedroom for the first time, the scene with Lecter in his “exercise room” that feels completely out of place and would have played a lot better if it had they just filmed it in his cell, and the ending which contains both an explosion and a lame twist. Still, for a big studio film with a lot of money riding on the box office, this is as good as it’s likely to get.

Mann’s version likewise has very little wrong with it except for a few scenes where people just drone on and on (and on) about FBI procedure in these dry Ben Stein deliveries until it finally begins to register as meaningless technobabble in your head. This flaw is what I’m sure hurt it the most in theatres because it takes a few repeat viewings for your brain to process what the hell they’re talking about, and who’s going to pay to see a movie twice just so they can listen to the dialogue again? There are also two instances where Mann is so subtle that he wanders into incoherence. One is the relationship between Reba and Dollarhyde, which I’ve already talked about. The other is what exactly happens to Dollarhyde’s victims. I mean, what does he DO to them? For a movie so obsessed about FBI procedure, there’s almost no mention of how the killer KILLED his victims. I’ve just seen the movie again and I’m still not sure they even mention once in the movie that shards of glass are inserted into the victims’ eyes.

The story continues in part three of MANHUNTER VS. RED DRAGON>>>




Posted on April 6, 2005 in Features by
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