Hannibal Lecter is back in “Red Dragon,” but he cannot ever scare us again as much as he did in “Silence of the Lambs.” We know him too well. But that very knowledge becomes one of the pleasures of seeing this movie about what happened before “Silence of the Lambs.” Another pleasure is the very fine performances. But the primary pleasure is just being so scared that you might forget to breathe.
No, we don’t get to see the fava beans or the nice chianti. But we do get a glimpse of the life of Hannibal before anyone (but us) knows that he will soon be called Hannibal the Cannibal.
As the movie opens, a symphony orchestra is performing in concert, before an appreciative audience. All of a sudden, among the hundreds of people, we see a familiar face. It is Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Is he noticing that the flute-player is a little off tonight? When we next see him hosting a gourmet dinner for the symphony board, the simple sight of seeing a guest swallow a bite of food gives us goosebumps. Later, when we see the odious prison psychiatrist, Dr. Chilton (portrayed again by Anthony Heald), there is a guilty pleasure in knowing what lies ahead of him.
This story has been impressively filmed once before as 1986’s Manhunter, with Brian Cox as Lecter. But everyone wanted to see more of the Anthony Hopkins take on the character, and so we got this version, showing the best of what a big-budget Hollywood production can do. Every single part is meticulously cast and brilliantly performed. Among many notable appearances, particular standouts are Harvey Keitel and Ken Leung as FBI agents and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a tabloid reporter.
Edward Norton plays Will Graham, an FBI agent who consults Lecter on a series of murders and then is responsible for his capture, after Lecter tries to kill him. Graham retires from the FBI, but is called back in to consult when another serial killer has murdered two families. Like Clarise Starling in Silence of the Lambs, Graham visits Lecter in prison to ask for his help, and once again, as engrossing as it is to track down the new killer, the real thrill of the movie is the interaction between Graham and Lecter. Norton’s character is more of a challenge for Lecter than novice Starling, and the history between them – and some similarities between them – make for some electric moments on screen.
Ralph Fiennes plays Francis Dolarhyde, and we know very early on that he is the man Graham is seeking. At first, the effort to explain his compulsion seems overly simplistic, but the way it is used in the movie’s climax makes it work. Dolarhyde is drawn to Reba, a spirited blind woman (Emily Watson), and Fiennes makes the conflicts between the imperatives from the William Blake-inspired demons that tell him to kill and the tender feelings he has for her heartbreaking. Director Brett Ratner, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, and production designer Kristi Zea have created a world that reflects and illuminates these competing dual forces.
Parents should know that the movie has extreme peril, including a child in danger, and explicit, graphic violence. The overall tone of the movie can be deeply disturbing for some audience members and viewers of all ages should carefully consider whether it is appropriate viewing. There are some sexual references and situations.
Families who see this movie should talk about Graham’s conversation with Reba. How was what he said important to her? If the FBI comes back to Will to ask him to help again, what should he do? Why? Why are people so fascinated with the Hannibal Lecter character?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs. They may also want to try Psycho, inspired by the same real-life killer that inspired Hannibal Lecter. For more information about serial killers who also provided some inspiration for author Thomas Harris, see here.