When I taught at Ted Bundy’s alma mater, one student wrote this report: “He was our babysitter. He was not a very nice babysitter. He would play games and scare us and then say they were just games.”
That’s the kind of creepy mental peekaboo that made Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (whose saga is partly inspired by Bundy, who was convicted by teeth marks) immortal. But Ridley Scott’s movie of the Thomas Harris novel Hannibal is not scary. It’s just a game.
Twice, Hannibal’s tale has risen to pulp tragedy on camera, in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986, reissued on a director’s-cut DVD) and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Demme made Hannibal a permanent pop phenom: dark father, demon lover, mind-reading puppetmaster, ruthless icon of will, intellect and appetite–he’s a man for our time. Scott’s Hannibal repeats pop-culture history as stylish farce. Not that the creator of Alien and Blade Runner has lost his voluptuous touch. There is much to admire in Hannibal, including the penultimate scene that reportedly made Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally and Jodie Foster (who played Hannibal’s nemesis, FBI sleuth Clarice Starling, in The Silence of the Lambs) flee shrieking from the sequel project. (Spoiler alert: I’ll describe this scene below.) Yet Scott’s Hannibal is a diminished thing.
You can get at the heart of these films by comparing their snuff scenes. Manhunter boasts the most haunting opening scene: a killer’s-eye view as he (the superb Tom Noonan, star of Buried Child on Broadway) ascends a stairway to a bedroom and shines a camcorder light on a woman’s face until she awakens and sees her fate. Later, we see her as the madman himself does–with eerie lights in place of her eyes and mouth, as if she’s lit from within by lust and magnesium. That’s it–no gore, only horror. Horror is what you think, not what you see.
Demme’s immensely humane, deeply moral, emotionally acute The Silence of the Lambs employs a like discretion. When Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins) cuffs and clubs his cop captor, we don’t see the biting and bludgeoning directly; we see the cop’s face as he grasps what’s about to happen, and we see Hannibal’s face, spattered with blood and then blissed out on exquisite music. Later, we see a tableau of the crucified cop with angelic wings made from red, white and blue bunting (Demme associates violence with extremist Americanism). It’s the idea that’s horrific, not really the tastefully distanced atrocity itself.
Both scenes abduct the viewer–carry us into the psycho’s world. Hannibal, however, occurs on familiar movie turf. In the spiffy opening sequence, Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, replacing Foster, acts like every plucky action heroine you ever saw) leads a stakeout at a drug drop in a fish market. The chief druggie pulls a gun from under the baby strapped to her chest and puts a bullet in Starling’s leg; Starling puts one in the druggie’s skull and rinses the HIV-infected blood off the otherwise unharmed baby on the fish market’s cutting board. In the novel, the spray forms “a mocking rainbow of God’s promise.” Scott, who doesn’t give a rip about that baby, focuses instead on the fascinating abstract pattern of the blood in the fish market ice cubes. He has aesthetics in place of the author’s bitter religious ethics.
Starling gets blamed for the raid gone wrong, though it was really the sexist cop’s fault for drawing his gun too soon. Starling’s übersexist boss Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), a churl she’s spurned, exploits her disgrace. But Starling’s downfall is a dramatic dead end–empty calories. (There’s an almost identical hackneyed Starling-disgrace scene Demme shot and wisely deleted–it’s instructive to watch it on The Silence of the Lambs Criterion DVD.) Scott conveys the FBI gal’s resistance to sexism with dialogue Hannibal would term “ham-handed”; Demme did it in deft images–Foster entering an elevator of oglers–and smart dialogue that respected each character. Krendler, like lots of Scott villains, has obviousness problems. (If I’d been poor Joaquin Phoenix, forced to utter those lines while everybody else got the good bits in Scott’s Gladiator, I’d have fed myself to the lions.) When Hannibal insults Starling in Demme’s film, his skill is chilling: “You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube…. You’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling?” It gets under her skin and yours. When Liotta’s Krendler insults Starling, it’s like watching Peter Boyle tapdance in Young Frankenstein. “Corn pone country pussy,” Liotta mutters. “I wouldn’t mind having a go at you right now.” “In the gym, anytime,” Moore tritely replies. “No pads.” No more!
Things perk up when we hook up with Hannibal in Florence, where he’s living la dolce in an authentic fifteenth-century palazzo, with the view he craved in his Silence of the Lambs dungeon. Boy, does Scott feast his eyes on Florence! Squares alive with wheeling birds, arcades that reach prayerfully to heaven, sunlight on water like molten precious metal, arias afloat in the open air. The quick-cut, jagged black-and-white scenes are still more glorious. He makes us share Hannibal’s epicurean idyll, and his glee in killing people he deems “rude.” It’s not as good as making us sweat with Starling in Hannibal’s hellish cell, feel the clamp of his mind-forged manacles, fear the rot of all that is good in us by his infectious nihilism, but it’s something. Lecter at large is lesser than Lecter yearning in a cage for the same reason that the only good thing Tim Leary ever wrote was his jailbreak account: Escape gives pressure and structure to a narrative, while endless freedom leads to aimless partying.
There’s a $3 million reward on Hannibal’s head, which attracts an Italian cop, Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini). Scott adroitly stages Pazzi’s Hannibal hunt, which is, of course, Hannibal’s Pazzi hunt. The cop looks glum, as well he might, since he’s descended from the historical Pazzi who got defenestrated and eviscerated in a way certain to appeal to Hannibal Lecter. When Pazzi goes splat outside the palazzo, it’s gross but barely disturbing.
More disturbing is the mistake Scott makes in dramatizing the character who has offered that $3 million reward, the meatpacking billionaire Mason Verger (Gary Oldman). The best duo in the novel is not Starling and Hannibal, it’s Verger and his militant sister (AWOL from the movie). Verger is like a Goofus to Hannibal’s Gallant–instead of using his wealth to savor the best in life and kill the rude, Verger uses it to gobble drugs indiscriminately and rape children. In a flashback, a younger Verger invites his psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, home for sex, so he can blackmail him into concealing Verger’s addictions. Lecter lets Verger tie himself up and offers a popper. Actually, it’s speed, LSD and PCP, enabling Lecter to hypnotize Verger. When the good doctor advises Verger to slice his own face off with a mirror shard, Verger obeys; Lecter feeds Verger’s face to his pooch.
Paralyzed yet all-powerful, a ghoul mouthing born-again cant, Verger should be a great monster, a fit antagonist for Hannibal. And he is on the novelistic page, with his hand that moves like a crab, his brutal moray eel and his videocamera trained on captive children whose tears he decants and drinks. On screen, he’s just Gary Oldman, in scarface makeup resembling the hero of Sondra Locke’s film Ratboy, and sounding like the unholy offspring of Andy Warhol and Jimmy Stewart with his teeth out. Oldman does a good acting job, but it’s an impossible job, given the reduction of the role.
And it gets worse! Verger’s plan is to nab Hannibal, drag him to his vast estate, Muskrat Farm, and feed him to big killer pigs. The problem: Pigs are adorable onscreen. They have these cute little snoots, and when they eat somebody, it may be formally gory but these creatures are about as scary as the carnivorous rabbits hippety-hopping to devour humanity in Night of the Lepus. The buildup to the showdown is very much akin to Dr. Evil’s “unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism” in Austin Powers.
Did you forget about Starling? While all the above is going on, she is trying to stop Pazzi from hunting Hannibal, and then hunts Hannibal herself. Scott is a fine choreographer of actors; one extended sequence of Starling and Hannibal chatting on cell phones while he leads her a merry chase on a merry-go-round is bravura filmmaking. Their twosome, alas, is not toothsome. When at last they meet after unnecessarily slow exposition, the good doctor purrs, “Good evening, Clarice. Just like old times!” It most certainly is not. In Silence of the Lambs, Foster’s and Hopkins’s faces interacted elementally, like wind and waves, or like fencers’ foils crossed, bent, quivering, threatening to snap. Moore and Hopkins get no such quality face time. The script forces them to phone most of it in.
Moore is the genuine article, ambitious, gifted, artistic promise personified. Nobody sounds deeper, darker notes than she has in Boogie Nights and Short Cuts and (heroically, riskily) in Safe. What’s wrong with her Starling, then, besides the words? The girl is all class–she lacks trash. “Trailer-camp, tornado-bait white trash,” Hannibal calls Starling. But Julianne Moore is nothing of the sort. She’s patrician, elusive and otherworldly. Jodie Foster, for all her Francophone Phi Beta ways, convinces the camera she’s down-home, earthy, vulnerable, earnest, as pure as the kid in the Coppertone ad grown up uncorrupted.
And Anthony Hopkins? He’s still got those odd, hooded bedroom eyes, all twinkly yet somehow immobile as the dead. His vocal instrument still croons, but he’s changed Lecter’s key this time. Before, comedy was a palate cleanser; this time, it’s the main course. Really, his latest Lecter, free to roam, is a lot like Anthony Hopkins is in person: witty, drifty, dreamy, delightful to talk with and remote as a hologram.
The climactic scene in Hannibal is a dream–don’t listen to all those prissy critics who dissed it. Starling is stoned on opiates, and Lecter invites her through her wooze to have a friend for dinner. Or rather, an enemy: Krendler. Liotta, at a total loss for the rest of the movie, comes through in this moment of crisis (abetted by a $70,000 Ray Liotta robot doll indistinguishable from the real actor). He wears his baseball cap backwards, lending him an amusingly juvenile aspect. His speech, like HAL’s in the last bit of 2001, reverts to childishness, peeling back his character, revealing his inner self, simple as it is. In a shocking shot I sincerely doubt you haven’t heard about, Hannibal removes the top of his skull. There are many memorable effects in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal: the miasmal mist over Verger’s Muskrat Farm, the grain of wood inside Lecter’s grandfather clock set against the ribbed pattern of the metal pendulum, the velvety sky enriching the lustrous blues of cop-car cherries crossing a bridge in funereal procession, the final image of the film, an iris shot of Lecter’s red eye. But out of all the virtuoso moments, it’s that dinner scene that sticks with you. Why? It’s the one that plays for keeps.