not in our stars, but in ourselves
Did you really feel so depressed after you shot Mr. Garret Jacob Hobbs to death? I didn’t know you then, but I think you probably did. But it wasn’t the act that got you so down. Didn’t you feel so bad because killing him felt so good? And why shouldn’t it feel good? It must feel good to God. He does it all the time. God’s terrific. He dropped a roof on 34 of His worshipers last Wednesday night as they were groveling through a hymn to His majesty. Don’t you think that felt good?
Humans are needlessly complicated animals. We’re guided much less directly by our evolutionary urges than our non-human beast coevals; somewhere in the course of developing language, pleasure, philosophy, religion, romance, and all the other not-strictly-necessary bells and whistles peculiar to our species, we’ve also developed some unique quirks – serial killing being one of the least understood. What drives a man (usually a man, don’t argue) to hunt other humans for sport, for fun, for whatever it is that drives him? How can the law (another peculiar human invention) get far enough ahead of him that he can’t kill anymore? There’s a great piece in Bookforum‘s new issue about psychopaths, and how frighteningly unknowable they are. Not all serial killers are what we call psychopaths, but there’s a fair amount of overlap. As such, there are some limited ways for professionals to try to understand and apprehend them. What about a serial killer who’s not motivated by cruelty, whose methods of selecting his victims are harder to define, who isn’t opportunistic or bold – but methodical and shy? Michael Mann’s Manhunter, a sterling adaptation of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, doesn’t take these questions on directly, but they linger in every scene. What do you do when the “monster” you’re hunting is someone you recognize as a fellow man?
Will Graham (William Petersen) used to be a profiler for the FBI, but he retired after he was attacked – nearly fatally – by Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). For years, he’s been living peacefully on the beach in Florida with his wife and stepson. His old boss, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), comes to ask him for one more favor: a serial killer known in the tabloids as the Tooth Fairy has ruthlessly murdered two entire families, one in Birmingham and the next in Atlanta. Both murders occurred on the night of the full moon, so Crawford figures that they have a little over three weeks until he strikes again. Will is reluctant to get involved in an investigation again, considering what happened last time, but he feels compelled to try to help the next family, whoever they may be. While looking at the crime scenes and the case files, Will can see dimly what sort of person the “Tooth Fairy” might be – but he’s rusty. He decides to ask Hannibal for help; and Hannibal, in turn, decides to have a bit of fun. He places a personal ad in the tabloid that runs the most Tooth Fairy coverage, providing Will’s home address and urging the “shy boy” to “save yourself, kill them all.” Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) decides instead to focus on Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang), the tabloid impresario who’s been instrumental in – as Dollarhyde sees it – spreading lies about him in the press. Will manages to figure out that Dollarhyde is his man, and leads a bloody charge into his home (just as he’s terrorizing his coworker, by whom he feels jilted). After that, it’s safe to say, Will retires for good.
You all know how I feel about Hannibal the show. Well, okay, in case you’re new, I’ll tell you: I love it deeply, passionately, as obsessively as TV Hannibal loves TV Will. In the second half of season three, it takes on the events of Red Dragon, and it does so superbly. When I read Red Dragon, I couldn’t put it down, because I was compelled by the nightmarishness of Dolarhyde’s crimes, the horrific struggle he endured against his worst impulses, the terrible toll it took on Will simply to imagine how someone like Dolarhyde must think – let alone to look at the evidence of what he’d done. The show recreates that nightmarishness in a style that, as showrunner Bryan Fuller put it, was very “pretentious ’80s art movie.”
And yet – here we have a genuine pretentious (according to some, not me) ’80s art movie, which washes scenes in garish neon colors and overwhelms the action with music that seems intended to bring about some Brechtian distanciation, but it treats the actual manhunt and the man they’re hunting with stark realism. The show, as you may recall, treats Will as an almost magically gifted empath. He always argues that he’s simply paying attention to the evidence, but we see him – again and again – reliving each murder as the murderer himself; we see the understandably massive toll it takes. But such work takes a massive toll even on less supernaturally gifted investigators – and that’s what we see here. To confront such brutality as directly as Will has to, to visit the crime scenes and to see the photos of the bodies, to try to overcome his initial response (revulsion, horror) in order to get inside the mind of a man who can calmly and efficiently murder an entire family in one night. Even at the remove of a forensics lab, that kind of work can corrode the soul; up close and personal, it’s like radiation poisoning. Manhunter is very much Will’s story, so we spend the most amount of time with him as he carefully examines every piece of evidence, fighting against the tide of his own human need for self-preservation; but Mann fleshes out the portraits of “Lecktor” and “Dollarhyde” (no idea why he changed the spelling) as well. Unlike the rather cavernous basement prisons of Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen, Cox’s Hannibal is caged in a tiny white cell that’s flooded with blinding white light. He’s entirely cut off from any other inmates; he has no books, no view, nothing. He has gone insane with boredom – and Cox plays up Hannibal’s hunger for gameplay and mischief to the hilt. It’s funny to note the differences among the three actors: Hopkins is Katharine Hepburn, Mikkelsen is Marlene Dietrich, and Cox is Judy Garland.
In short, Manhunter is a hell of a movie. It’s not hard to outdo Ratner’s ridiculous 2002 effort, but I’m calling it now: it’s the best film version of Red Dragon out there. There’s not a scrap of fat on it, and the two hours shoot past like a rocket. Maybe if you don’t care for pretentious ’80s art films, you won’t like it – but if that’s the case, you’re probably not much of a fan of the Hannibal-verse anyway.