He's a completely different monster than the Wagnerian cannibal glimpsed in The Silence of the Lambs. Released five years earlier, Manhunter (based on the book Red Dragon) views Dr. Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lektor, here) with clinical restraint, as glimpsed in a clean, antiseptic white cell. Respected British actor Brian Cox (Rushmore) would not be so gauche as to flare his nostrils while smelling you -- he'd catch you off guard, throwing away the line about your cheap after shave with "a ship on the bottle" with a bemused note of thinly veiled contempt.
One could discuss Cox's superb performance for the length of an entire review yet he's only in three crucial scenes opposite his captor, semi-retired Will Graham (William L. Petersen, To Live and Die in L.A.). As in Silence, Graham users Lektor as a vessel to recover the mindset of tracking serial killers for the FBI. Lektor's chilly, sensual brilliance pervades the entire film, taking a psychic toll on Graham. Their scenes together alternate between mindfucking stabs ("Dream much, Will?") to vague, unsettling attraction.
The central conflict with Will Graham is his cursed ability to read the mind of a psychopath, but decoding the mind of a killer is no easy matter. Despite the false promises from his friend and supervisor Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina, Snatch) that he'll only be an advisor, Graham finds himself once again slipping into old habits. Before long, he's empathizing with the killer, which may lead to some major breakthroughs in the case while tearing Graham's family apart.
The presence of evil haunts Manhunter, intangibly. The graphic forensics reports Graham prepares, outlining the macabre crime scenes in vivid detail, allow the imagination to fill in what happened within the silent houses and rooms he explores. Graham flatly describes blood on the wall from arterial spray as the victim tried to fight, knowing that the killer was headed for the children's room.
As serial killer Francis Dollarhyde, Tom Noonan (What Happened Was...) is given the role of a lifetime. Introduced at the midpoint of Graham's search, this fiend is both demigod and terrified child trapped within a shy, soft-spoken introvert. Noonan brings an odd, unpredictable stillness to the role, whether softly threatening to staple a victim's eyelids to their forehead or making tender, awkward advances on a blind, fiercely independent co-worker (Joan Allen, The Ice Storm). Dollarhyde is viewed with cool restraint, biding his time until unveiling his twisted fantasy to transform into a God without remorse.
Michael Mann, well regarded for his minute attention to technical as well as psychological detail, is very specific with the FBI procedures. There is a fascinating sequence concerning dusting a victim's eyes for fingerprints and another in which the experts scan a handwritten note from the killer, using infrared lasers to pick up details invisible to the human eye.
While certain elements of Manhunter are slightly dated, such as overdressed cops and the ever-present synthesizer score, Dante Spinotti's crisp visuals still resonate. His vaguely unsettling angles often cramp actors into the corners of a shot. The color scheme is filled with rich, saturated hues that envelop images in a glossy, pungent web. Mann and Spinotti make extensive use of mirrors and shadows, often framing Graham's reflection in glass during crucial moments of duress.
Graham's investigation leads to a harrowing confrontation with Dollarhyde, the troubled beast he had long envisioned on paper. This crucial meeting is symbolized by Graham smashing through a glass doorway, breaking the thin mirror that kept them separate (at least in Graham's mind). Unsubtle, perhaps, but after two hours of slow burning intensity the explosive moment feels earned (accompanied by Iron Butterfly's surprisingly effective "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida").
The most perceptive scene is not the appropriately grisly finale or even the company of Dr. Lektor. It's a brief discussion between Graham and his stepson (David Seaman) walking through the long aisles of a supermarket. The boy asks a few wary questions about Lektor's crimes and their effect on Graham, who recovered through a long period in a mental institution. Graham must provide honest answers while protecting the child from the horrific details. Petersen finds the right balance, investing the scene with careful tenderness.
The release of Manhunter on a limited edition DVD is meant to coincide with Ridley Scott's Hannibal, the long anticipated sequel to Jonathan Demme's eerie Silence of the Lambs. Despite the appearance of Dr. Lecter/Lektor, there's no guarantee of a crossover fan base. Manhunter lacks catchy one-liners about eating someone's liver with fava beans and a nice chianti (fh-fh-fh-fh), nor does it present cold blooded psychopaths as pop culture icons befitting a t-shirt.
Instead, Michael Mann unnerves his viewers with this psychologically slippery, contemplative and disturbing thriller about a detective searching under his own skin for the criminal impulse. As Lektor reminds Graham, "The reason you caught me is we're just alike. You want the scent? Smell yourself." As Graham ultimately discovers, once you enter the mind of the killer, you may never return.