Manhunter May 31, 2015
I’ve always admired Michael Mann’s ability to make even the darkest of crime movies emit a neon, martini-sweet glow. He can shock us, disturb us, magnetize us; but all traumas are wrapped up in a cool package, kept swirling around in pulp noir fantasy. Recurring in Mann’s films, or at least the ones I’ve seen, is the persistent distinction that, while the atmosphere may look like a colorized Kiss Me Deadly, something bleaker lurks beneath the surface.
Esteem goes much further than an emotional connection when it comes to a Mann picture. Like Lynch’s Lost Highway or Antonioni’s Red Desert, sitting back and getting lost in the thickly spread luster is much easier a task than walking out of the theater moved, tears streaming down our faces from the penetrative emotions thrown about left and right. We’re left cold, drowning in the sorrows of the characters, suffocated by the elusive sheen of Mann’s camerawork. Manhunter, a thriller that initially introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter (rebranded Lecktor here), is a rather aloof serial killer suspense drama, murderous in its tension but icy in its pathos.
William Petersen plays Will Graham, a retired FBI profiler lying low after a gruesome attack by cannibalistic murderer Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). His resting period is cut rather short, however, when he is approached by his former superior (Dennis Farina), who is in desperate need of help. A new serial killer, billed “The Tooth Fairy”, is wreaking havoc on the area, slaughtering families at random in hopes to attain some sort of mental catharsis. With Graham’s chilling ability to put himself into the mind of the person under investigation, he very well could be a valuable asset. So reluctantly, knowing he could end future killings, he accepts the blood-stained invitation, aided by the now-jailed Lecktor.
The interest Manhunter provides steadily increases, especially after it introduces the Tooth Fairy himself (spoiler warning). As Francis Dollarhyde, Tom Noonan is convincingly disturbed, so much so that we see him as a psychologically scarred monster, not a two-dimensional one that so many serial killer based movies provide us with. He is a victim of a neglectful society; all he ever wanted was for someone to like him.
I suppose the most problematic fixture in Manhunter is Dollarhyde; he is the only character who holds our interests. Noonan is so dedicated, so expressive that we fear that reading too much into his performance would ruin his startlingly effective capacity to freak us the fuck out. Petersen, on the other hand, is much too understated to be believably haunted by his past, while Kim Greist and Joan Allen, two magnificent actresses, are wasted in roles too small to go anywhere.
But the film is dripping with style, and when the writing fails to move, the cinematography takes the spotlight and galvanizes what’s left of glass-littered-on-the-ground reality. Mann’s excessive tinting works well here: dark blues wash out scenes of comfort, of love; greens, pinks, and oranges hint at imminent threat. Even the score, mostly consisting of synthetic, distinctly ‘80s mood pieces, heighten Mann’s hallucinogenic embellishments.
Manhunter is entertainment of the highest quality, subversively stylish, intelligently directed; but it remains so brisk, so distant, that even the slimmest thrill is brought to entirely new levels because it somehow feels more hospitable than everything coming before its insertion. B-