A serial killer nicknamed The Tooth Fairy is targeting families and the police have nothing. They know he kills at full moon, and with the next full moon only three weeks away, lead investigator Jack Crawford reaches out to criminal profiler Will Graham, who's currently on leave, licking his wounds after a particular nasty run-in with another serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor.
Graham must leave his family behind and once again risk his sanity, by reconnecting with the part of his brain that enables him to think like a psychopathic killer. He must think like the killer, so he can catch the killer, and he must do it fast. The full moon is approaching and time is running out.
A tortured cop lured back for one last job is hardly an original concept, and if that was all Manhunter was, we wouldn't still be talking about it today. Needless to say, this movie is so much more than it's pulp novel tagline would suggest.
These days police procedurals are a dime a dozen. Detectives who think like killers show up on TV on a daily basis, and the whole concept now seems gimmicky and fake, but back in the day, in 1986, this must have seemed like a fresh idea.
Manhunter opens with shaky video footage, shot by the killer as he enters the house of his latest target. He moves into the family bedroom. He waits as the wife slowly wakes up. She looks at him, and the clip ends. There's no question about the tone from this point on.
Manhunter is fascinating, because it combines the traditional methodical police investigation with Graham's obsessive approach to profiling, and while these two elements clash and fuel each other's fire, there's the constant reminder of Graham's family hovering in the background. They're not just pawns to be moved into place in the third act, caught between killer and cop in the final showdown, their happiness is on the line even if the killer never gets near them. They're a constant weakness for Graham, but they're his armor as well. The one thing that truly separates him from the man he's chasing.
The stakes couldn't be any higher.
The driving force behind Manhunter is, of course, writer/director Michael Mann. Once upon a time he made great films. Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999) are among my favorites, not just because they are good stories and technically well-done, what I love about these films is the way Mann creates mood.
Remember the scene in Heat, where Al Pacino chases down Robert De Niro in a helicopter, just before their famous diner-scene? Or that scene in The Insider, when they drive to the courthouse, so that Russell Crowe can get his testimony on the record? Mann is (or rather, was) a master at creating this type of sequence, where the visuals, the music and the underlying theme blend together in a visually dense, emotional exhausting knot. There are more than a few scenes in Manhunter that demonstrate the same cinematic dexterity.
While there are lives at stake in Heat's search for justice, and interesting ethical questions buried in the politics of The Insider, Manhunter allows Mann to focus on a much more simple, raw premise: Catch the killer, before you lose your mind.
As an instrument in this endeavor The Tooth Fairy is a truly frightening creation. A tortured man, struggling with his own identity, caught in a mental whirlpool, which threatens to tear him apart. He's a monster, but he's a human as well, and his actions sometimes make us question whether he really is beyond salvation. In the garden variety cop thriller, we know that the killer and the cop will end up facing each other in the final reel, and we also know which one of them will prevail. Manhunter makes us doubt all the signature elements of the genre. We can't be sure that the cop will maintain his sanity until the end, we don't know if the police will find the one piece of evidence that will lead them straight to the killer, but most importantly, we can't be sure how far gone the killer is. That shred of humanity he shows, however small in the contest of his previous transgressions, makes us doubt, if only for a second, but that adds an interesting and unusual layer to the story and the character.
So let's turn our attention to the elephant in the room... The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Manhunter is based on the novel Red Dragon, published in 1981, while the The Silence of the Lambs novel was published in 1988. Both were written by Thomas Harris. Seeing how Manhunter was received upon it's initial release (very poorly), it probably surprised even the most optimistic souls when the movie version of The Silence of the Lambs became a runaway hit, and made it all the way to Oscar glory and pop culture immortality.
In many respects Silence is the better of the two films, but it's also the most accessible. That fact alone will award it penalty points from many film-connoisseurs, and I must admit that even though I hold Silence in the highest regard, it's not entirely without flaws. Many of them admittedly enhanced by the countless inferior sequels and prequels.
The most interesting point of deviation is Brian Cox's take on the serial killer Hannibal Lecktor, which makes Anthony Hopkins' version look like a party clown. Cox is, of course, also assisted by superior production design. When we meet him he's dressed in hospital whites, trapped behind white bars in a white prison cell. It's a sharp contrast to the rather silly dungeon set where Hopkins spends most of his time. In Lecktor's shiny white universe there are no shadows to hide in, and the former psychiatrist's penetrating stare is inescapable.
Adding to this dichotomy is the somewhat contrived Beauty and The Beast pairing at the heart of Silence, playing up the sexual tension, at the expense of the intellectual battle. In Manhunter the meeting between cop and killer is purely an intellectual exercise, a mind-game, and frankly more appropriate given the nature of the crisis the detective is trying to avoid.
We're comparing apples to oranges at this point, but it's also tempting to judge William Petersen's Will Graham against Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling, though this hardly makes for any useful conclusions, since they're different characters in different stories. Let's just say, I know who I would pick if I was in charge of a serial killer case.
One can't help but wonder how it would have played out if The Silence of The Lambs had been tackled by the team behind Manhunter, or what if Manhunter had been shot in the same style and with the same cast as The Silence of the Lambs?
What if indeed.
Manhunter is released in a Blu-ray/DVD combo by StudioCanal in England.
First of all, there are two versions of the film included here. The Theatrical Cut and the Director's Cut. Don't mess around with this too much. The two versions are almost identical, however, while the Director's Cut includes a few extra tidbits, it also removes several good moments and ruins the ending by altering the penultimate scene.
As for the image quality, it's certainly not reference quality, but I was pleasantly surprised. The film holds up well, especially considering the many dark scenes. A little more film grain would have been nice, but I won't complain, I remember how awful this looked on VHS. I'll take this ANY day! By the way, the image quality of the Director's Cut is clearly inferior to the Theatrical Cut, another reason to chose this version.
The disc also features a running audio commentary from the director, but I didn't have a chance to check this out.
We also get an Inside Manhunter featurette (17:24), which gives a very brief, but interesting look behind the camera. Equally interesting is the Manhunter Look featurette (10:12), an all too brief interview with cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Fascinating stuff, I could listen to him for hours!
Manhunter is so distinctly a product of the 80's that it's not even funny. You need not look further than the color-scheme or the soundtrack to reach that conclusion. In that sense it's badly dated. Everything else about this film is still fresh and raw. There's a sense of danger here so thick you'll need a chainsaw to cut it, but at the same time it's an intellectually stimulating story. At the end of the day Manhunter is an unmissable companion-piece to The Silence of the Lambs, and here's why:
When Lector calls Starling at the end of The Silence of the Lambs and asks her if the lambs have stopped screaming, we know the answer is yes. Yes, because of Lector. If a similar call had been placed to Graham at the end of Manhunter, the answer the answer would also be yes. Yes, in spite of Lecktor.
Therein lies the difference, and the reason both films are still relevant.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTSThanks to StudioCanal and Edith Chappey for making this review possible.