Recent Viewings

At first I thought I would fill this guest spot with something connected to the recent theme of video games as art but it would appear I had less to add to that topic than I thought so, without further ado, I’ve decided to review and compare two films based on the same story, having recently finished watching them both:

I had watched Red Dragon a few weeks before, which I liked well enough, but I was curious to see Manhunter not only because it was the first time this story had been converted to a film but also because it was directed by Michael Mann, whose later films I’ve found expertly directed (particularly Heat, which I consider one of my favorites).

I was surprised at first by how similar the two films are on the surface, sharing a good deal of dialogue and basic story line, but where the two really differ seems to be character focus and intent in shooting. While both films follow the character of Will Graham (played by Edward Norton in the latter adaptation and William Petersen in the earlier) as he tracks down a serial killer, Red Dragon spreads the focus out, capitalizing on the gravitas of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and showing off who the killer is and how he goes about his life early on. Manhunter is strictly focused on the character of Will Graham, how he hunts serial killers, and the psychological issues he creates for himself in doing so by forcing himself to think just as they do. The Will Graham in Red Dragon seems like he could be any highly skilled FBI agent while the Will Graham in Manhunter comes across as someone with a unique skill. It makes sense in Manhunter for one of Graham’s collegues to so desperately want him to work on a particular case.

In terms of how each film is shot, Manhunter clearly aims to be an artistic piece. There are long, thoughtful type shots, ambient drone-ish music to complement them (aside from the few times some 80s pop song works its way in), and the film as a whole has this feel that it aims to be something heavier than just the telling of a story. Red Dragon comes across more as the basic telling of a story, which is not to say it lacks production values or good acting, but that it doesn’t present itself as being hard-hitting beyond ‘here’s Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter again!’ and ‘here’s another crazy serial killer!’

Unfortunately, the artistic intent of Manhunter seems to go a bit over the top at times and the worst of these moments is the climax of the film. The finally realized confrontation between Will Graham and the Red Dragon killer is plagued with repetitions of shots during the fight and the overuse of slow motion. A scene following this climax, meant to further illustrate Graham’s psychological issues with getting into the minds of those he hunts, only comes across as awkward rather than ominous. These two troubled scenes would probably bother me a lot less if they didn’t come at such a crucial time in the film.

Nevertheless, Manhunter is certainly a film worth checking out, moreso than its newer counterpart. As a Michael Mann fan, it’s also interesting to see his particular style of film-making when it was less developed (such as shots reminiscent of those he would make in later films but not quite as refined as they would become). I also found Brian Cox to be a surprisingly effective Hannibal Lecter. Anthony Hopkins no doubt nailed the role in Silence of the Lambs but considering the character’s role in the Manhunter/Red Dragon story, I thought Brian Cox presented a more menancing Hannibal than Hopkins did in Red Dragon. I think this is likely due to expectation. When presented with Hannibal Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins in Red Dragon, we’re expecting the same level of intelligent malevolence we were shown in Silence of the Lambs. This story doesn’t belong to Hannibal Lecter however, and his small but influential role in Manhunter comes across more poignantly than it does in Red Dragon, where it seems the character is given more screen time than necessary simply because of who he is and who he’s played by.

3 thoughts on “Recent Viewings”

  1. I agree on all accounts…Red Dragon was a much more polished attempt, but it was missing the oomph in the character of Will Graham. Having read the novel, which is excellent, Graham is a very gifted individual, but the gift he has is psychologically troubling.

    Manhunter mgives some weight to that, while Red Dragon kind of misses it, and puts too much focus on Lecter. Hopkins is absolutely fantastic as Lecter, but seems to upstage Edward Norton, whose character should be equally interesting due to hs disturbing ability to think exactly like a serial killer.

    Manhunter lacked the production values of Red Dragon, and the acting wasn’t as good, but the characterizations were probably better.

    I guess I’m trying to say I liked both, but neither quite did everything they could have.

  2. I definitely agree. Lecter wasn’t that big a part of the Red Dragon book. His primary purpose was to further explain Graham’s character. In the Red Dragon movie, they played his character up a bit, in part because he was one of the selling points of the film. Unfortunately, this muddles the character arc of Graham. Personally, I thought Brian Cox was great as Lecter (just as good as Hopkins).

    I don’t think either movie captures Dollarhyde very well. I just had a much different image in my head.

    Also, the ending. While the Red Dragon version is taken literally from the book, it’s also kinda lame. That was one of the weakest parts of the book, and I thought Manhunter’s ending was much better.

    Like you say, aside from the production values (which are ultimately unimportant), the new one doesn’t really add much. Manhunter is significantly better, imhbco.

  3. I wouldn’t have expected the Red Dragon ending to be the one from the book. I agree, it’s kinda lame. Seemed to follow the overused just-when-you-think-it’s-over “surprise” return that we all know is coming. I was pleased to see Manhunter not take that route.

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