This review was written by an old friend and sparring partner under the nom de plume “Pincher Martin” from a chat room I have contributed to for nearly 20 years.  It is an accurate reflection of my feelings on the film and a great write-up of an overlooked and underrated picture.

“Over thirty years ago, I was living in LA and found myself one day in the San Fernando Valley, lining up to see a movie in one of those mall cineplexes that were common at the time. I forget what made me drive over to San Fernando from Westwood, where I was a student living in an apartment, but whatever it was, I know it didn’t have anything to do with the movie I ended up seeing.

I had heard nothing about Manhunter. I’d read no reviews of the film. I’d seen no ads for it. It wasn’t considered a big film at the time. I knew nothing about Michael Mann, the film’s director, who was just some guy known for his work on the new TV series Miami Vice, a show I didn’t watch. I also knew nothing about William Peterson, the star of the film. While several of Peterson’s co-stars in Manhunter would later become familiar to movie-goers (Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan, Stephan Lang), I knew nothing about any of them when I walked into the theater that day. The movie had a cast of unknowns to me.

But it wasn’t uncommon for me at the time to go see a movie on the spur of the moment whenever I had a couple of free hours, and so it must have been some serendipitous event that allowed me to see that day what I now consider to be one of the best films of the nineteen-eighties and one of the best cop films I’ve ever seen.

I loved the movie immediately, and I’ve not changed my mind about it over the last thirty years. I was transfixed by the story I saw on the screen that afternoon. The small movie theater was almost empty (a scene which must’ve been replicated all over the country, since the movie did poorly at the box office), but I didn’t care. Certain scenes in the film made such an impression on my young mind that I could still remember them in detail years later, although I did not have a chance to watch the movie a second time until many years later. Even scenes that were not particularly important in advancing the plot left an impact on me that afternoon because of their aesthetic appeal

I still remember, for example, the blue tint used in an early scene showing Kim Greist and William Peterson as they lay in bed at night with the black-blue ocean behind them. It’s simply breathtaking.

Manhunter was based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, who would later become famous for writing The Silence of the Lambs, which became the way most people were introduced to the character Hannibal Lector, either through the novel or the film.

But Manhunter was my introduction to Hannibal Lector, and it was an intro which later made me lukewarm about Anthony Hopkin’s more celebrated portrayal of the character. Brian Cox’s Hannibal was very different from Anthony Hopkins’s. In his short stint as the character, Cox played Lector with more believable directness, suaveness, and quickness of mind, and with none of Hopkin’s annoying affectations.

Manhunter has perhaps the best scene I’ve ever seen of what I’ll call a realization by the protagonist.

This scene never fails to astound me. It’s one of the few times in a Hollywood action flick that you can see a character thinking through a problem and coming to a realization in a way that seems almost believable. (L.A. Confidential is one of the few other films with this feature which comes to mind.)

The scene, which unfortunately is cut in some versions of Manhunter available today, lasts over seven minutes and involves just two characters – Will Graham played by William Peterson and Jack Crawford played by Dennis Farina. Listen to how the music gradually and quietly enters the film’s soundtrack at about the five-minute twenty-second mark on the youtube video, building up to enhance the tension of the moment when Graham realizes how Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer named “The Tooth Fairy,” is picking his victims.

Manhunter has several remarkable scenes showing FBI agents at work. They’re seriously done, following Thomas Harris’s careful research for his novel. Mann, however, is too obsessed with his own visual style to hew too close to reality. He dresses his agents up more as if he’s thinking of letting them put in appearances on Miami Vice than he does for the real work of the 1980s’ FBI. But it works.

Some critics claim that Manhunter was a precursor of the TV series CSI, which also starred William Peterson, and later branched into a franchise of similar TV shows. I’m not sure that’s the case, but it’s an interesting theory. It’s probably true the movie must’ve helped Peterson more than a decade later when he won the starring role in the first CSI TV show. The movie and the TV series had a similar way of looking at evidence.

Whatever its influence, the movie’s reputation has skyrocketed over the last three decades. After bombing at the box office in 1986, the movie is something of a cult classic today ( 94% on Rotten Tomatoes). Most likely, this had to do with the commercial and critical success of The Silence of the Lambs, which came out five years after Manhunter. The Silence of the Lambs is an excellent film, but in many ways I prefer Manhunter.

Brett Ratner would later release his own cinematic version of the novel Red Dragon in 2002 with a more faithful rendering of the original story. I think it was a mistake.

Manhunter is the superior film in almost every respect. It deviates from the novel in ways which improve the story for film; the acting is better; the soundtrack/music is better. Only in the editing of the final scenes and a few other details is it inferior to Ratner’s fim.

The plot in the novel Red Dragon is too complex for a feature film. Mann in Manhunter wisely chose to focus on the chase – without the need for the complex twist at the end. But Ratner’s Red Dragon made the mistake of trying to emulate the complexities of the novel rather than streamline the story for film.

As far as the acting, Red Dragon has the more acclaimed cast. At least on paper. Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Mary Louise-Parker are all celebrated in their profession, with multiple Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards and nominations from their peers.

But Ratner didn’t get much from these names. Hopkins was too old. Fiennes and Norton were miscast. Ratner chose to play Mary Louise-Parker like she’s smart trailer trash. Watson was not bad in the blind role, but Joan Allen was better. And Stephen Lang is better than the soporific Hoffman as Freddie Lounds.

Anthony Hopkins is a superb actor, but he was a glassy-eyed 65-year-old actor in 2002 when Red Dragon came out. He had lost the menace he possessed more than decade earlier when The Silence of the Lambs was released.

Brain Cox, on the other hand, was excellent in his short stint as Hannibal Lector. He underplayed the menace with more believable suaveness and quickness of mind. Perhaps that’s because Cox was only forty-years-old when he played the role and so much more alert-looking than Hopkins, who sometimes seemed like he was battling astigmatism whenever he glanced in the direction of the camera.

Mann gets so much more out of all his actors. Peterson is more convincing as Graham than is Norton, who sometimes comes across more as if he’s a depressed professor rather than a haunted cop.

Tom Noonan was a revelation as Francis Dolarhyde. That character requires a large, strong, ugly man to play the role, whereas the somewhat effete, handsome Fiennes is simply not believable in it. His voice is too affected, even when he damps it down for the role. (This is an excellent example of how a classically-trained Brit actor can’t fit into just any role an American actor can do.) Noonan is a huge man who looks like he could be a serial killer.

One can’t compare the two movies without mentioning the soundtrack of Manhunter. It’s one of the best soundtracks in a feature film I’ve ever heard. I bought it and listen to it on some of my playlists. And yet the music was criticized by movie critics as too synthetic when the movie was first released. (Go to Youtube to listen to the soundtrack. It’s stupendous.)

Manhunter has become a cult classic for a reason. The movie was unfairly neglected by movie-going audiences and maligned by movie critics when it was first released in the theaters. (For what it’s worth, the novel was also unfairly neglected by book readers when it was first published.) But the success of The Silence of the Lambs got Manhunter another look from both critics and audiences, and that second viewing has allowed the film to be reevaluated to its proper stature.

13 Things You Never Knew About ‘Manhunter,’ the First Hannibal Lecter Movie

2) For the lead role of FBI profiler Will Graham, the filmmakers considered Nick Nolte, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, and Paul Newman. Mann ultimately went with Petersen, after seeing him play a relentless sleuth in 1985’s “To Live and Die in L.A.”

3) For the part of Hannibal Lecktor (yep, that’s how it was spelled in the script), the producers thought of John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, and Brian Dennehy. It was Dennehy, however, who recommended Cox.

Mandy Patinkin as Hannibal Lector?  Interesting choice.

Read items #8, #9, and #10 to see just how tight the budget was on the movie. They explain why the end of Manhunter was so poorly edited.

Isabelle Huppert (nominated for best actress) is a successful video game designer who is, in the film’s first scene, brutally raped. The twist is that she is already so cynically wired and self-loathing that the act does not have the consequences one might expect.  In short, she’s a tough-as-nails cookie, central to the maintenance of her successful business, dolt of a son, needy ex-husband and outrageously libertine mother.  She is also brazenly selfish, carrying on an affair with the husband of her best friend, with whom she has an almost romantic relationship.

So, when her rapist begins to text her and even break into her house to leave “mementos”, she is as much intrigued as terrified.  The result is, at its best, a Hitchcockian sexual thriller and sly comedy of manners, and, when the mystery is solved, at worst, a smugly self-satisfied weirdo tale.  All in all, a solid film by Paul Verhoeven (Black Book, Robocop), who has made a career sticking his thumb in the eyes of traditional sexual mores, usually with a taste for the violent.  Huppert is nothing less than commanding.

The politics of the film are also interesting. It has been dubbed by many critics as a “rape revenge” movie, but it is really a great deal more complicated than that.  I am guessing the moniker was affixed to ward off much of the picture’s untidy political incorrectness (as one progressive reviewer unsurprisingly notes, this is a “male filmmaker’s lurid, repeated depiction of violence against a female character, one who is defined, almost entirely, by her relationship with men, shown in nightmarish detail”).  If someone brought this baby on to an modern American campus, the viewers would likely be institutionalized and those responsible tarred and feathered.

 

I am a huge fan of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories), and in particular, his methodical, textured and grounded style of filmmaking. And boy does he exhibit all of those qualities in Loving, the story of the Virginia couple, Mildred and Richard Loving (played by Ruth Negga and the hardest working man in show business, Joel Edgerton) at the heart of the Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriage.  Nichols’s depiction of their small Caroline County Virginia town, with its slow pace and cloistered mentality, eschews the Hollywoodization of most civil rights flicks.  The system is wrong and cruel, and the instruments of same (the police, the courts) are in service of that wrong, but these are just people, neither mustache twirling villains or radiant, untouchable martyrs.

The problem with the film, however, is that not every historical figure is deserving of a movie treatment. George Patton, sure, but Omar Bradley?  The fact is, the Lovings, as presented by Nichols, are so simple, so unremarkable, that they feel less like leaves caught in a whirlwind or champions for their own cause and more like bystanders.  Mistreated bystanders, but mere bystanders nonetheless.  Negga shows some deftness in delivering her culture shock at having to escape to the city, and you can see a steel in her spine stiffen at the injustice at play (the Lovings were essentially banished from Virginia).  But Edgerton is so internal and non-demonstrative that he doesn’t even classify as inscrutable.  He’s just a dud, bordering on the disinterested.

It is almost to Nichol’s credit that this film is so boring.  He steadfastly refuses to dramatize.  But boring and entertainment are not reconcilable.

Perhaps Nichols sensed this flaw, because while he gets estimable but sober help from Bill Camp and Martin Csokas as the local attorney and sheriff who, respectively, assist and plague the Lovings, he tries ever so slightly to give the audience some flash in the form of comic actor Nick Kroll, as the ACLU lawyer for the couple. The gambit fails.  Kroll is, frankly, a lousy, one-note dramatic actor and it almost feels like he wants to start cracking up.  The effect is weird and off-putting.

Ultimately, this film feels like an obligation.  If you feel so obliged, go to it.

Prior to seeing Moonlight on Saturday, my two “best” pictures for the year were the rousing, throwback to old Hollywood musicals La La Land and the deeply affecting, painfully human Manchester by the Sea.  Last night, Moonlight inexplicably (and awkwardly) won best picture, and I have to say that in the three horse race (actually, four, because Hell or High Water is every bit the film as these three), I would have been happy with any coming out on top.  Moonlight, however, distinguishes itself from the others in a few critical ways.

First, let’s put La La Land to the side, not with short shrift, but simply as a “which one of these doesn’t belong and why?” entrant.  I’m still captivated by Damien Chazelle’s light and vibrant revival of the Hollywood musical, but it is a different animal and one that I think suffered from an early over-exuberance that gave way to more serious and deeper fare, as well as a time-worn presumption that LA would be unable to resist rewarding itself (with the assistance of Price Waterhouse and a befuddled Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, LA almost pulled it off).

Hell or High Water was a sneakily political film with rich turns and deep roots , but ultimately, it was a heist and manhunt pic; Jeff Bridges was a derivation of the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country for Old Men; and the film was as much about desolate Texas as the characters hurtling towards each other on its dusty roads.

So, my eggs were in Manchester’s basket.  Casey Affleck’s tortured yet reserved and meticulous performance was one of the best I’ve ever see on film, and Kenneth Lonergan’s depiction of what a family means in its whole and then in its shattered parts, along with its stubbornly non-Hollywood ending and countenance, sold me.  Best film of the year.

Then, Moonlight.  The story of a young black kid (Chiron) from Liberty City wrestling with not only a forbidding environment but his own sexuality was tender and poetic.  Also, I found it just a tad more interesting, in that it depicted a world and a struggle not often covered in film, and it elevated restraint and finesse to its highest form.  While not as moving as Manchester, in part due to a more ambitious and necessarily distracting style, the films are very similar in capturing a character at different stages of his life, changed by trauma and haunted by doubt.

The film is also blessed by numerous strong performances.  Though nothing approximating Affleck’s turn, the three actors who play Chiron as a boy, a teen and later as an adult all were deserving of the Best Supporting Actor nod given to Mahershala Ali, who plays the Cuban crack dealer who puts Chiron under his wing.

The quiet, unhurried moments in the three non-musicals are the ones I found most impressive, moments where you filled in the blanks and never felt even nudged to a conclusion or resolution.

I don’t know which of these films is the best of the year, but they are all great.

As a director, Mel Gibson has visual chops, but that’s about the whole of it.  Accordingly, unless someone writes him something of value, it can be a long slog.  Hacksaw Ridge, which recounts the incredible story of WWII conscientious objector medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) as he staves off court-martial and saves75 lives on a hellish plateau in Okinawa, is that slog.

First, to the history.  After Hidden Figures and Sully, I smelled a rat, and sure enough, most of the particulars of those stories – which could have and should have stood on their own – were b.s.  After Hacksaw, I was sure I’d hit the trifecta.  I was wrong.  Doss’s story is basically retold straight.  The problem is that his story is so incredible, Gibson should have said, “You know, let’s leave this part out, or people are going to start rolling their eyes.”  For me, the part when Dawes has a grenade thrown at him, and he wheels around and gives it a back-kick reminiscent of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill or top form Pele’ – that was the moment.  But hell if Doss didn’t do just that.  From History v. Hollywood:

On the night of May 21, 1945, just a half mile past the escarpment on Okinawa, Desmond’s unit inadvertently walked into a company of Japanese soldiers. The unit engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy and Desmond scrambled to treat the wounded. “They begin to throw these hand grenades,” recalled Desmond. “I saw it comin’. There was three other men in the hole with me. They were on the lower side, but I was on the other side lookin’ when they threw the thing. I knew there was no way I could get at it. So I just quickly took my left foot and threw it back to where I thought the grenade might be, and throw my head and helmet to the ground. And not more than half a second later, I felt like I was sailin’ through the air. I was seein’ stars I wasn’t supposed to be seein’, and I knew my legs and body were blown up.” The blast left 17 pieces of shrapnel embedded in Desmond’s body, mostly in his legs. The Conscientious Objector Documentary

 Now, to the film.  I don’t know what to say about the non-combat portion, where we see Desmond as a boy and later in basic training.  As dewy-eyed hokum goes, this is buffed to almost the point of art form.  Garfield is so damned earnest in his role he threatens veering into Gomer Pyle and even Forrest Gump territory, but to his credit, his ardor actually works.  He inhabits the role fully and effectively communicates the viewpoint of a simple, decent and brave man.  Unfortunately, those around him are so melodramatic or stock, it is hard not to stifle a laugh.  His sweetheart (Theresa Palmer) is the vintage beauty in the gleaming white nurse outfit, the sun streaming through her lovely hair.  His mother and father (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths – Mel takes care of his Aussie own) are damn near operatic.  And my God, his introduction to his unit threatens to break into song, as every stereotype steps up to say “Hey, I’m the Italian/Hollywood/Tough/Nice/Shy/Hick guy” and “Howya doin’, goodtomeetcha’, heytheresport, getalookatdosegams, fuggedaboudit”

“WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . .

OFF TO FIGHT THE JAPS!

CAN’T WAIT TO SEE SOME ACTION

IN TOJO’S ASS WE’LL PUT SOME CAPS.

WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . . . .”

After this incredibly uncomfortable segue, the scenes of Doss’s trial by fire to get him to quit and his convictions being challenged during basic training are perfunctory.  One gets the sense Gibson wants to get to the battlefield.  Understandably so. Mel does maelstrom and carnage better than most, and the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are fluid, inspired and riveting.

But that ain’t nearly enough.

I looked at the IMDB description for this film, and nearly did a spit-take when I saw it categorized under “Comedy.”  A woman estranged from her family for years, clearly mentally disturbed and also a recovering substance abuser, arrives at her sister’s massive Thanksgiving get-together in Texas, where we get to watch every holler and stomp destabilize her like a gut punch, as she repeatedly retreats to the bathroom or patio to pop pills, smoke and/or eventually, booze.

Hilarious!

What follows is an intense exploration of the sufferings of a sick mind as it shimmies and shatters and the shards go flying into the innocent bystanders.  Krisha Fairchild is riveting as the poor wretch, but I’m simply too old for this kind of film.  One reviewer noted: “The story will eventually draw the viewer outside Krisha’s perspective, but the beauty of the film is that its compassion deepens along with its very real sense of horror — compassion not just for Krisha but for those who still love her or have given up on trying.”

Not so.  I don’t care about her and i don’t want to care about her.  She’s a narcissistic cancer and it’s neither fun nor interesting to watch the world try to pull her from a dizzying descent down the crapper.

Winner of the South by Southwest Film Festival Grand Jury Award and Audience Award, available on Amazon Prime, and as entertaining as orange juice on a canker sore.