An unseen intruder walks into the home of a family, his torch illuminating the stairs as he walks up them past a child’s bedroom and heads towards the master bedroom, torch shining on the face of the wife who wakes up next to her husband, the film fades to darkness. We find out later that the whole family was brutally murdered. The disturbing opening of Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) shows no violence in the serial killer’s murders as it is all discussed later by the police, but the implication of this opening scene sets the shocking tone and atmosphere for the film.
Manhunter is the tale of Will Graham, an FBI profiler who is called out of early retirement to hunt down a serial killer known as the ‘Tooth Fairy’ (nick-named that for the perverse reason that he kills and bites his victims). The film explores the methods Graham uses to hunt the killer down: using both traditional police-procedural techniques as well as getting help from another serial killer; Hannibal Lector, who is locked in a mental institution.
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It was adapted from a novel by Thomas Harris and was directed by Michael Mann (Thief ; Heat ) in what could be considered part of Crime Trilogy exploring tormented and conflicted cops/criminals. In the same style as those films he makes the scenes come alive with a distinct style and visual beauty. Major cities are given a visual and slick sheen, flashback sequences adopt a metaphysical quality and scenes that seem straightforward in which characters talk to each other are given a mythical quality through incredible cinematography and music: its cinematic film-making at its best. The story follows Graham as he rediscovers his professional streak while the second half of the film introduces the killer himself and his perspective. By doing so we see two different characters whose tormented lives are on a trajectory course to the film’s final showdown.
The array of characters is fascinating: the obsessed Graham, who finds himself having to become more like the killer in his mind-set and mentality in order to catch him, and the killer himself, a pained and tormented figure, but also a deadly and brutal one. The compelling introduction of Hannibal ‘Cannibal’ Lector as the incarcerated psychotic provides an interesting and disturbing intensity to the film. Hannibal Lector will be familiar to audiences from The Silence of the Lambs but Manhunter introduced the famous character five years before the Academy Award winning film and portrays him in a very different way. The film portrays a very similar relationship to the two characters as Graham gets help and advice from Hannibal from behind bars.Graham is on the near-edge of being locked up in a mental institution and has been confined in one in the past due to a mental breakdown induced by his profiling work. Hannibal is very much at the heart of the film as he embodies all of Graham’s fears: mental breakdown; psychotic behaviour; isolation and entrapment. Hannibal becomes an embodiment of everything Graham fears.
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The Hannibal Lector, in Manhunter, is far more credible and interesting due to the fact that he is not played as the stereotypical psychopath familiar with Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in the Silence of the Lambs who smiled in a nasty manner; spoke sadistic dialogue and acted on Hollywood clichés of a psychopath. Brian Cox instead plays Lector as a credible psycho in the sense that he acts with the veneer and look of somebody who is sane but from what his behaviour shows he can psychologically damage people. Both films explore psychos but one is overt evil whilst the other is psychological.
While the film is a compelling thriller, it does feel like two different films in one. This is an interesting if slightly flawed approach to the material, as it plays like two different films: the first half is a psychological study of a damaged cop who must think like a serial killer in order to catch one while the second half is a straight-forward, ‘hunt the psycho’ film.
Manhunter is worth watching as it has good amount of atmosphere, action and character development but also cleverly explores how the best way to catch a killer is to think like one (a helpful life lesson).
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