not in our stars, but in ourselves
17/52: A movie with a color in the title
I am the Dragon. And you call me insane. You are privy to a great Becoming, but you recognize nothing. To me, you are a slug in the sun. You are an ant in the afterbirth. It is your nature to do one thing correctly: before me, you rightly tremble. But fear is not what you owe me. You owe me AWE.
Red Dragon, the first of Thomas Harris’s novels to introduce Hannibal Lecter, is terrifying. I read it in the span of about 24 hours, because I could not – despite my better instincts – put it down. For one thing, the crimes described therein are exactly the kinds of things that scare me: home invasion, specific selection of a completely random person, ritualistic killing, madness rooted in wild visions rather than in any more earthly concerns. For another thing, Harris spends about equal time with the killer as with the lawmen. He portrays Francis Dolarhyde – who sees himself as the Red Dragon of William Blake’s paintings – as the product of a miserable childhood, psychologically and emotionally abused by his insane grandmother. He hates himself, and finds solace in Becoming: rather than the scared little boy with a cleft palate, wetting his bed every night, he transforms himself physically into a powerhouse, and mentally into the god-like Dragon. Part of his Becoming is selecting random mothers, breaking into their homes, slaughtering the families, and raping the mothers’ bodies while the families’ dead bodies watch. It’s horrifying and compelling in equal measure.
Red Dragon the film falls a bit short of that. As in the book, Will Graham (Edward Norton) has retired from the FBI after being attacked by Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). He and his family live a quiet life in Marathon, Florida, where Will is happy to teach his son to fish and work on repairing boats. Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) comes to visit because he wants Will’s help: two families, one in Birmingham and one in Atlanta, have been brutally murdered in exactly the same way. No one was ever as successful in “seeing” how and why a killer did what he did than Will Graham, and Crawford wants him to help one last time. Will is reluctant, but he feels compelled to do what he can to keep another family from being attacked. Crawford and Will both realize that one of the things that made Will so successful was his collaboration with Lecter – who is now locked in his (iconic) Plexiglas cell in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Hannibal teases Will a bit, gives him some opaque clues, and takes a passing interest in this new murderer. Outside the “hospital,” Freddie Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – of the tabloid The Tattler – has been taking photos of Will entering and leaving. Lounds has been referring to the murderer as the “Tooth Fairy”, due to the unique (and savage) bite marks he leaves on his victims. After Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) sees the photos of Will in the Tattler, he writes a fan letter to Lecter. Lecter is amused enough to take out a coded advertisement in the personals section of the Tattler: using The Joy of Cooking as the cipher, he instructs Dolarhyde, “Graham home. Marathon, Florida. Save yourself, kill them all.” After a series of twists and turns, everything and everyone is reduced to ashes (some literally).
I had avoided seeing Red Dragon because I assumed it would be too scary for a cowardy-custard like me. I needn’t have worried. As frightening as the source material is, and as closely as the film sticks to the letter (apart from a rather softball ending), Red Dragon the film misses the spirit of the thing. It all feels a bit hamfisted: the Danny Elfman score, the lazy period details, the occasionally dizzying music video-style editing, the flashbacks to 1980 in which Hannibal is depicted with a ponytail (he would NEVER!), etc. Brett Ratner may be a serviceable director of other kinds of movies, but searing psychological thrillers seem to be beyond his grasp. The performances are fine, basically, although seeing Hopkins et al. playing their characters when they’re supposed to be younger than they were in The Silence of the Lambs (which was, of course, released 11 years earlier than this) tests the limits of suspended disbelief; but some are hopelessly miscast. I like Fiennes, and he’s not bad here, but Dolarhyde is supposed to be ripped. He lifts weights every day, sometimes many times per day, to the point of exhaustion. When you look at Ralph Fiennes, at any point in his career, do you think he looks like a man who’s ever lifted weights to the point of exhaustion? The Dragon would never skip leg day. I think Fiennes skips leg day pretty often.
However, it’s entirely possible that Red Dragon suffers now by comparison to Bryan Fuller’s delicious series, Hannibal, which will be back on June 4th. Indeed, I decided to watch Red Dragon because Dolarhyde will feature prominently in the third season of Hannibal, and I whipped myself into a frenzy reading spoilers yesterday. Fuller has already proven that he understands the dark, twisted heart of Hannibal Lecter better even than those involved with Silence (which is, to be fair, a film much more about Clarice Starling than about Lecter himself). I feel confident that he’ll make all my nightmares come true with his version of the Dragon – who will be played by Richard Armitage, a dreamboat who looks like he probably doesn’t skip leg day.
But maybe, long before Hannibal the series was even a gleam in Fuller’s eye, Red Dragon stood more surely on its own merits. It’s not bad. It’s not an embarrassment. It falls short of the terror in the novel – but it’s a decent Hollywood thriller. It’s the Tooth Fairy version of the story. I can’t wait for the full Dragon treatment in a little more than a month.