Manhunter (1986)

I get it, Manhunter directed by Michael Mann. Funny. However that’s probably the only funny thing about this serious crime thriller—unless, like me, you find psychotic killers hilariously funny. It’s strange to think how far Mann has evolved in terms in style in only a few years. By 1986 he’s got himself a hold of some meaty material with a Hannibal Lecter story—which isn’t about Hannibal Lecter at all.

Instead it’s about Will Graham (William Petersen), a young, retired FBI agent who gets pulled out of retirement when another serial killer begins killing off entire families. Will methodically, explores each scene, looks at every angle but still can’t get much of a lead. So he turns to Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox)—and yes, it’s spelled Lecktor instead of Lecter for some silly reason—a brilliant psychologist turn killer that Will caught a few years back. But he gets more when he bargains for when he comes face to face with the ugly truth.

The film presupposes something I’ve always expected about these kinds of films: If you are the best at hunting down and finding psychotic crazies that kill people it’s probably because you are likely just as disturbed and messed up as the killer. Throughout the film Will places himself in the shoes of the killer with ease. As he retraces the steps of the killer we see he easily has the methodical mind and disturbing though process that could make him just as raving mad as the killer. The constant tension, that mental fraying, makes the Will Graham a character whose internal conflicts are just as fascinating as his external ones.

Therefore, it’s a somewhat jarring transition when the film changes gears late on to put us in the shoes of the killer, a Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan). His conflict while gripping feels a lot more base and crass than the mental battleground of Will’s sanity. Where Will battles in the realm of the Ego, Francis is almost entirely taken up by the id. From the first moment we meet him, we can figure out what he’s going to do and the only suspense comes in when he will strike. The film does give his character a nice arc but it’s all for naught by the end.

It doesn’t help here that the inevitable clash of violence at end is handled in a deliberate heavy-handed manner. Mann’s usage of heavy cuts, slow motion and freeze frames try to punctuate each act of violence, but all it does it take away the immediacy and shock of what is being done. The ideas might have looked good on paper but in practice they just remind us that there’s someone manipulating and piecing together these moments and here those moments would work best without the manipulations.

What Mann does do well, alongside Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, is create consistently compelling visual style. From the simple balance of composition in the first conversation of the film to the colorful and lush nighttime sequences, each scene has an inherit beauty in it, even in the most grizzly and thrilling of moments.

But beyond all the elements of the film the real credit must be given to how well the film maintains this sense of unease and constantly presses the tension on. When Will sits down to talk to Lecktor we can feel the tension in the room from the composition of the frame, the surgical white set and the performances by Brian Cox and William Petersen. Likewise, when Francis feels those urges once more when a blind girl named Reba McClane (Joan Allen) enters his personal life there’s this constant suspense as we can see in his every movement what she cannot.

It’s those moments throughout that make Manhunter a compelling work. Like any good thriller it constantly deals in conflict and the film knows just where and when to pull out each one. The film lacks the kind of emotional resonance it’s going for by the end and I don’t think I buy some of the sentimentality it wraps itself up in, especially when the film brings everything to a close with a noisy action sequence.  These small blights keep the film from being impeccable but it still remains a compelling picture by the end.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing