Mad doctor Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) possesses a dark gravity. His sphere of influence grossly affects all who enter it, ripping apart psychological scar tissue, exposing repressed injuries and raising a gory tide of terror. These could be the attributes of an evil god of the damaged mind. But the doctor abdicates self-deification. He’s not psychotic.
“God dropped a church roof on 34 of his worshipers in Texas Wednesday night — just as they were groveling through a hymn,” Lecter mentions in a finely contrived casual manner to FBI Special Investigator William Graham (Edward Norton). “Don’t you think that felt good?”
Sophisticated as Lecter and his murders may be, he executes them with a simple, childlike glee. “Why shouldn’t killing feel good? It must feel good to God — He does it all the time, and are we not made in his image?” Lecter insinuates that Will takes the same pleasure in the kill. Will turns to leave the elegant ogre in his lair, the ward for the criminally insane buried beneath Baltimore State Hospital. But before the steel door can close behind him, safely shutting Lecter off, the doctor’s parting shot reaches his ear: “The reason you caught me is that we’re just alike.”
Sticks and stones may break your bones — and Lecter may have played Will’s guts with the blade of his stiletto before the investigator’s bullets brought the suave sociopathic beast down — but words can hurt like hell. They may fire a crucible of transformation.
“I’ve never seen a child as disgusting and dirty as you” — the voice of his long-dead grandmother echoes in Francis Dolarhyde’s (Ralph Fiennes) damaged mind as his own echoes in a large, dilapidating mansion she’s left to him. Grandma’s castrating and haunting abuses mutate into the commands of the Red Dragon, his private deity, his virulent imagination running rampant. The Red Dragon has come to him through visionary artist William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun, a picture transcendently illustrating a scene from the biblical Apocalypse. Dolarhyde has so fetishized and internalized the image that he wears a detail of it tattooed on his back, which is well-muscled by compulsive weight lifting.
The Red Dragon empowers Dolarhyde for better — and horribly, for worse. He slaughters two suburban families, the mothers, fathers, young sons and daughters, killing their pets in an overture to his ballets of blood, and breaking their mirrors and setting the shards in their blind eye sockets so he can almost literally witness his performances through their dead eyes.
He dares a long-distance correspondence with Lecter. Between the lines of his secret message, he applies to be the doctor’s protégé and apprentice. This is all, of course, for the worse. But for the meager better, he ironically finds a chance for true salvation with a blind co-worker, Reba McClane (Emily Watson).
Unlike Lecter, Dolarhyde is a full-blown psychopath. The Red Dragon is the voice of God in his head demanding blood sacrifices and punishing. It’s Grandma terribly transcendent. Will is compelled to use Dr. Lecter as an oracle of psychopathic murder.
Writer-director Michael Mann based his Manhunter (1986) on Red Dragon, the first story in author Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter trilogy. Mann seemed to struggle with putting Will’s internal dialogues on screen and William L. Petersen’s performance of these scenes comes off histrionic. Mann also chose to put his film in a high-tech setting, almost verging on sci-fi (with a now-dated synthesizer sound track to match) and amps up Harris’ police procedural to a high action level that ends up finally diverging from the novel’s original plot. But Mann’s film is saturated with what director Brett Ratner’s (the Rush Hour movies) Red Dragon is not — visual flair.
Ted Tally’s script stays almost as close to Harris’ book as his adaptation of Harris’ second Lecter tale, The Silence of the Lambs, did. (Tally, like Jodie Foster, reportedly turned down the last Lecter film, Hannibal, as too violent.) Ratner’s film is populated with a dream team of A-list actors who all deliver effective performances. But Red Dragon lacks the degree of artistic suspense and horror of both The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Ratner horrifies and shocks, but the Red Dragon’s tale demands a supreme level of terrible and awesome power that this movie is just shy of reaching.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.