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A retired FBI agent with psychological gifts is assigned to help track down "The Tooth Fairy", a mysterious serial killer; aiding him is imprisoned forensic psychiatrist Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter.
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Will Graham is a former FBI agent who recently retired to Florida with his wife Molly and their young son. Graham was a 'profiler'; one who profiles criminal's behavior and tries to put his mind into the minds of criminals to examine their thoughts while visiting crime scenes. Will is called out of his self-imposed retirement at the request of his former boss Jack Crawford to help the FBI catch an elusive serial killer, known to the press as the 'Tooth Fairy', who randomly kills whole families in their houses during nights of the full moon and leaves bite marks on his victims. To try to search for clues to get into the mind of the killer, Will has occasional meetings with Dr. Hannibal Lecktor, a charismatic but very dangerous imprisoned serial killer that Will captured years earlier which nearly drove him insane from the horrific encounter that nearly cost Will's life. With some help and hindrance, Will races against the clock before the next full moon when the 'Tooth Fairy' will ... Written by
Retired FBI specialist Will Graham is lured back into action to track a serial killer who is killing families, seemingly linked into the lunar cycle. In the process it opens up some old mental wounds that were born out during his last action out in the field...
Before the gargantuan success of Silence of the Lambs, where the name Hannibal the Cannibal moved into pop culture, and before director Michael Mann became a named auteur often referenced with relish by hungry film students; there was Manhunter, Michael Mann's brilliant adaptation of Thomas Harris' equally brilliant psychological thriller, Red Dragon. It feels a bit redundant now, years later, writing about Mann's use of styles to bear out mood and psychological states, his framing devices, his commitment to his craft, but after revisiting the film on Blu-ray, I find myself once again simultaneously invigorated and unnerved by the magnificence of Manhunter. Visually, thematically and narratively it remains a clinical piece of cinema, a probing study of madness that dares to put a serial killer and the man hunting him in the same psychological body, asking us, as well as William Petersen's FBI agent Will Graham, to empathise with Tom Noonan's troubled Tooth Fairy killer. Here's a thing, too, Francis Dolarhyde (The Tooth Fairy) is a functioning member of society, he is quite frankly a man who could be working in a shop near you! This is no reclusive psychopath such as, well, Buffalo Bill, Dolarhyde is presented to us in such a way as we are given insight into this damaged mind, he is fleshed out as a person, we get to know him and his motivational problems.
Dream much, Will?
Mann and his team are not about over the top or camp performances, gore is kept to a premium, the real horror is shown in aftermath sequences, conversations and harmless photographs, but still it's a nightmarish world. Suspense is wrung out slowly by way of the characterisations. Will has to become the killer, and it's dangerous, he knows so because he has done it before, when capturing Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Needing to pick up the scent again, to recover the mindset, Will has to go see the good doctor who has a penchant for fine wines and human offal. These scenes showcase Mann at his deadliest, a bright white cell filmed off kilter, each frame switch showing either Lecktor or Graham behind bars, they are one. When Lecktor taunts Will about them being alike, Mann understands this and visually brings it out. Dolarhyde's living abode is murky in colour tones and furnished garishly, and with mirrors, paintings and a lunar landscape, yet when Dolarhyde is accompanied by Joan Allen's blind Reba, where he feels he is finally finding acceptance, this house is seen at ease because of the characterisations. Switch to the finale and it's a walled monstrosity matching that of a killer tipped back over the edge. Brilliant stuff.
If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.
Lecktor, soon to be back as the source material Lecter in the film versions that follow, is actually not in the film that much. Brian Cox (chilling, calculating, frightening and intelligent) as Lecktor gets under ten minutes of screen time, but that's enough, the character's presence is felt throughout the picture in a number of ways. The Lecktor angle is very relative to film's success, but very much it's one strand of a compelling whole, I realise now that Mann has deliberately kept us wanting more of him visually. Noonan is truly scary, he lived away from the rest of the cast during filming, with Mann's joyous encouragement, the end result is one of the best and most complex serial killer characterisations ever. Lang scores high as weasel paparazzi, Allen is heart achingly effective without patronising blind people and Farina is a huge presence as Jack Crawford, Will's friend and boss who coaxes Will back into the fray knowing full well that Will's mind might not make it back with him. But it's Petersen's movie all the way. His subsequent non film career has given ammunition to his knockers that he is no great actor. Rubbish, with this and To Live and Die in L.A. he gave two of the best crime film portrayals of the 80s. He immerses himself in Will Graham, so much so he wasn't able to shake the character off long after filming had wrapped. There's a scene in a supermarket where Will is explaining to his son about his dark place, where "the ugliest thoughts in the world" live, a stunning sequence of acting and a showcase for Petersen's undoubted talents.
Newcomers to the film and Mann's work in general, could do no worse than spend the ten minutes it takes to watch the Dante Spinotti feature on the disc. Apart from saving me the time to write about Mann's visual flourishes, it gives one an idea of just how key a director and cinematographer partnership is in a film such as this. The audio is crisp, which keeps alive the perfect in tone soundtrack and eerie scoring strains of Rubini and The Reds. Some say that the music of Manhunter is dated? I say that if it sits at one with the tonal shifts and thematics of a story then that surely can never be viewed as dated. And that's the case here in Manhunter. The director's cut is included as part of the package but the transfer is appalling, and for the sake of one cut scene that happens post the Dolarhyde/Graham face off, there's really not much to the DC version anyway. The theatrical cut is perfect, brilliantly realised on Blu-ray to birth a true visual neo-noir masterpiece. 10/10
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