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Manhunter (1986)
Director: Michael Mann

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Based upon Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon (1981), but made prior to the release of Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), Michael Mann's Manhunter remains the most insightful, unsettling and cinematically accomplished of all the Hannibal Lecter films. Recently re-issued on DVD and blu-ray, the film remains a fiercely intelligent meditation on the dangers of excessive empathy.

The film begins on a beach where retired FBI psychologist Will Graham (William Petersen) is fending off the attentions of his former boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina). Clad only in shorts and faded T-shirt, Graham is defenceless as his be-suited old boss lures him out of retirement in order to help catch a serial killer who butchers entire families. Initially, we have no idea as to why Graham retired or why he might prove resistant to returning, we only know that his wife does not want him to go back. From there, the film transports us to Alabama where Graham cautiously tiptoes his way around a crime scene in an effort to get inside the killer's head. Frustrated with his lack of traction on the case, Graham decides to visit a high security psychiatric hospital in order to confront the killer who forced him into premature retirement.

The reason why Crawford lured Graham out of retirement is that Graham has a unique capacity for empathising with serial killers. Indeed, while most forensic psychologists draw up profiles based upon the existing evidence, Graham goes one step further and projects himself into the mind of the killer he is investigating. This act of projection is vital as the film presents serial killers as people who inhabit radically different worlds to that of normal people. When normal people kill it is because they are moved to transgress the moral law by some fleeting passion that momentarily confuses them as to the right course of action. Serial killers, on the other hand, are intensely moral people who abide by the moral law of the universe as they see it.

It just happens that, because they are insane, they perceive a universe in which brutal murder is an absolute moral necessity. By projecting himself into the mind of a killer, Graham learns to see the universe as the killer sees it and thus he responds to the world in the same way as the killer. Indeed, Graham's final case prior to retirement saw him understanding the killer so well that he was able to infer his true identity from the fact that he owned a book about war wounds. Unfortunately for Graham, this ability comes at a high price as, once summoned, the worldview of a killer is remarkably difficult to put down. In fact, Graham's inability to rid himself of a murderous worldview forced him first into retirement and then into a psychiatric hospital.

Mann shoots the scene in the psychiatric hospital with peerless elegance and skill. Forever framed by prison bars and tile patterns, the shot flits back and forth between Graham and his interviewee until it becomes almost impossible to tell who is the prisoner and who is the psychologist visiting a dangerous inmate. Dressed in gunfighter black, Petersen's Graham scowls through the bars while Brian Cox's Dr. Hannibal Lecktor radiates goodwill in shimmering white pyjamas. After sitting through three films dominated by Anthony Hopkins's interpretation of Lecter it is easy to be under-whelmed by the grinding normality of Cox's Lecktor. Indeed, rather than portraying Lecter as a lip-smacking pantomime dame, Cox portrays him as an amiable, rational and understanding human being who just happens to be a murderous psychopath. Aside from being a good deal more troubling, this performance also opens the door to an intriguing interpretation of Graham's relationship with Lecktor.

When Graham visits Lecktor in the hospital, we are told it is because he is hoping to rekindle the creative fires that allow him to project himself into the mind of a killer. However, rather than simply visiting Lecktor in the hospital, Graham reaches out to the disgraced psychiatrist in the hope that his superior understanding of human nature might shed some new light on the case. This act of deference to Lecktor's superior expertise is deeply troubling when considered alongside Mann's cinematic blurring of the line between psychologist and psychopath. Indeed, by having Graham turn to Lecktor as part of his own creative process, Mann seems to be suggesting the existence of a symbiotic relationship between the two men. In fact, one could interpret the scene as a sort of vision quest in which the creatively frustrated Graham turns to his painstakingly repressed dark side in order to unblock the empathic powers that will allow him to solve the case.

This interpretation of Lecktor as a manifestation of Graham's dark side becomes a good deal more sinister once it is revealed that Lecktor leaked the whereabouts of Graham's family to the killer. Though undoubtedly exciting, this development depends on an enormous plot-hole that allowed Lecktor the freedom to both get in touch with the killer and forge a working relationship with him while under 24-hour guard. If we assume that Lecktor represents Graham's dark side then one could interpret this section of the film as an attempt by Graham to rid himself of a burdensome family. Indeed, despite professing to love his family and knowing full well the psychological stress that would be placed upon him should he return to work, Graham returned to work with remarkable ease, suggesting some degree of regret over leaving the job in the first place.

In fact, when Graham and his wife discuss his decision to return to work, she sourly points out that they did not have a 'discussion' as Graham had clearly already made his mind up to go back. What if Graham was attempting to use the killer to rid himself of a burdensome family? If we allow for the possibility that there may in fact be two halves to Graham's personality then we must also entertain the notion that the evil side of Graham might seek to free itself of the good side just as the good side deployed psychiatry to keep the bad side under lock and key. Having devoted the first half of the film to laying bare the moral conflict raging within Graham, Mann devotes the second half of the film to exploring a similar conflict within the killer.

Somewhat surprisingly for a film about tracking down a serial killer, Manhunter holds off revealing anything about the killer until halfway through the film. This means that, for the first hour, the killer is nothing more than an abstract theory in the minds of some FBI psychologists. However, once the hour mark is hit, the killer reveals himself as a hugely tall and strange-looking man played with otherworldly elegance by Tom Noonan. Born with a cleft palate requiring extensive reconstructive surgery, the killer grew up believing himself to be so grossly disfigured that he was unfit for human eyes. Alienated from the people around him and consumed by self-loathing, the killer comes to believe that he is in the process of becoming something else. This process of transformation is so psychologically substantial that it effectively reconfigures the killer's world into a place where murder is an absolute necessity. In fact, if the killer is ever to become the thing he believes himself to be; he must kill and kill again without regret or compassion.

However, when the killer makes a connection with a blind co-worker and unexpectedly ends up in bed with her, his self-loathing momentarily fades forcing him to reconsider his commitment to the process of transformation. This moment of doubt is played out in a poignant scene where the killer places the woman's hand on his scarred face and weeps at the sense of acceptance before the psychosis re-asserts itself and impels him to kill. Much like Graham, the killer's romantic liaison traps him between the urge to understand and the need to have clear moral boundaries and, much like Graham, the killer reacts to the moral ambiguities of understanding by strengthening his resolve and committing himself to a violent course of action.

This elegant dovetailing of characters and conflicts presents the conflict between morality and understanding as a bottomless pit of ambiguity. Indeed, Graham tries to do the right thing but his efforts only force him deeper and deeper into the mud of insanity while the killer breaks the surface only to dive back down in search of the moral clarity that both allowed him to function and compelled him to kill. Complex and unsettling, Mann's ambiguous presentation of the fine line between good people and inhuman monsters provides a fascinating counterpoint to other Lecter films that wound up re-inventing him as a sort of brain-eating antihero.

I first saw Manhunter on VHS as a teenager. Rented from the local video shop, this VHS was murky as hell and it left an enduring memory of a film that looked incredibly cheap and poorly made compared to Jonathan Demme's glossily cinematic Silence Of The Lambs. Revisiting the film on blu-ray, I was astonished by how beautiful this film can be.

Manhunter marked the first of several transformative collaborations between Michael Mann and director of photography Dante Spinotti. While the film's deft framing and flawless pacing are doubtless due to Mann (who cut his teeth making TV cop shows), Manhunter's stylish use of colour is widely attributed to Spinotti alone. Though occasionally overbearing and perhaps not as evocative as it could have been (deep blue for romantic scenes?), Spinotti's use of colour is nonetheless absolutely central to the film's foetid psychological atmosphere. Indeed, strip out the odd lighting and strange colour effects and what you have is a taut and well-made psychological thriller, but if you include the use of colour and you have a film that is profoundly engaged with the question of how our mental state 'colours' the world as we see it. Indeed, it is telling that the only times when the film is free from lighting and colour effects is when Graham is happily playing with his kids on the beach.

While previous DVD editions of the film have been notably sub-par both technically and with regards to extras, this re-issue reflects the film's growing stature as the blu-ray is flawless enough to burn out all memories of murky VHS. The actor interviews are certainly interesting, as is the interview with the DP, but Mann's commentary track is somewhat lacking in spirit. Furthermore, the director's cut included on the disc is almost identical to the original cinematic cut aside from an odd little scene in which Graham expresses heartfelt sympathy for the child who would later grow into the killer. Given the somewhat puzzling director's cut and Mann's bored-sounding commentary, it would appear that Mann retains little affection for Manhunter, which is a real shame as I think posterity will preserve as the best of all the Hannibal Lecter films.

Manhunter blu-ray


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