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Certainly one of the most underrated films of the past two decades, MANHUNTER (based on the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon), is a captivating and spellbinding thriller in which a former FBI agent is drawn out of early retirement in order to stop a serial killer, who brutally murders families in the dead of night and kills on a lunar cycle. Director and writer Michael Mann (better known for his TV work and such film as THE INSIDER and HEAT), has created something genuinely frightening while refusing to turn the story into a product. It takes its time to develop and flesh out its characters and its story, and Mann is not afraid to sway away from turning the whole thing into a mindless machine in which situation over lapses story.
The story begins with Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina, in a role that Scott Glen would take over in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), meeting up with former FBI agent Will Graham (William Peterson), to help develop a profile on a serial killer who has killed two families in the past few weeks. Graham is reluctant, as he now lives a quite life with wife Molly (Kim Griest), and their son Kevin. But Graham accepts to help whichever way he can. What made Graham a great agent was that he had the ability to gain access to killersí minds and discover what makes them do the things they do. But his experiences with Dr. Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lecktor for some odd reason, and played chillingly by Brian Cox) left him mentally scarred three years earlier and have since been recovering from his experience. The crime scenes are horrific, but help Graham understand the killer and his mindset. Graham, so involved with the case, goes to seek the help of Lector, now heavily restrained in a mental institution. Lecter, an unspeakable force even behind bars, knows how to get to Graham, and doesnít mind exploiting the things that bother him (Do you still dream? he asks, knowing that the subject is upsetting to Graham). But Lecter does have insights into the killer, and after reading the case file throws a few pointers in Grahamís direction.
The stress of the case has its toll on Grahamís family, as Molly dislikes the thought of her husband being to involved with the case as he was only originally suppose to an advisor. But Graham becomes obsessed, and even attempts to root out the killer through humiliation, by having trash reporter Freddie Lounds (Stephen Lang), who works for the National Tattler, run a false story by implying that the serial killer, dubbed The Tooth Fairy, is a homosexual. This does not end well for poor Mr. Lounds, as he is kidnapped and brutally murdered by the serial killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan). Dollarhyde, a massive, six-foot emotionally frail shell of a man, isnít a horrible monster, but one whose only goal in life is to be accepted. When he begins to get involved with a blind co-worker named Reba (Joan Allen), he begins to care for her and her well being. But he is still a delusional psychopath, and his desire to change is always present. But Graham is closing in fast and picking up the scent, but as time passes by, it costs him quite a bit.
The suspense is brilliantly executed and the film isnít afraid to allow things to build. We are not rushed through one event after another, but we are allowed to participate in what is going on because we are given enough time to. The film has a lot of respect for the audience, and those who enjoy watching something that can appreciate a solid effort, which pays off grandly. Mann doesnít allow the story to suffer by letting a situation become the main attraction. The story is tightly weaved out and because of that, because we care about the character, the suspense is allowed to grow.
The performances are superb, with Peterson giving an intense portrayal of a man who has a gift for rooting out and understanding the ugliness in the people he investigates. This was his screen debut, and a shame that the film didnít catch fire with audiences. Perhaps he could have been bigger. Noonan is perfect in the role, and the story doesnít even allow us to see him until the half way mark. Though the performance is excellently played out, the novel had much more insight into the background of the character (a victim of brutal harassment by other children growing up, and emotional abuse by his own mother). We can understand what he is feeling at all times, but we never understand why. Like Jame Gumb in the film version of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, character development is a bit disappointing. The performance, again, is riveting, as Noonan displays heart breaking emotions, as well as power that corrupts his soul and a hatred for his own self that doesnít distract him from lashing out. He wants to be loved and he wants to be desired, but feels that he isnít worthy of gaining that honestly, and feels he must take it from others. Thanks to the performance and the script, I think we have enough to go by with him and it does pay off. I just wish we had more of an understanding of how he became the monster that he did. It would have added more drama then suspense.
And of course, a very brief performance by Cox as Lecter. He only has three brief scenes, but they are crucial to the story. Cox gives a spine chilling portrayal of Lecter, with the tone of his voice (much more faster and casual then Anthony Hopkinís Lecter), and the way he taunts Peterson is intense. Cox has fun with the role, and gives it so much energy and horrific delight that even after he disappears from the scene, he is still very present.
A criminally underrated film that has thankfully found its place among audiences in the fifteen years since its release.
My Grade: A-