Genre: Thriller and Mystery Running Time: 1 hr. 59 min.
Release Date: August 15th, 1986 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Mann Actors: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan, Stephen Lang, Benjamin Hendrickson
agent Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) begs former criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) – a skilled manhunter who previously brought down serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) – to help with a new case. The killer seems to be striking on a lunar cycle, giving detectives approximately three weeks before another victim is chosen. Will would rather stay with his wife Molly (Kim Greist) and his son Kevin in their luxurious Florida home, but the FBI is desperate and Will is undeniably intrigued by the details of the murders. He also promises that his involvement will be only for examination and analysis – nothing that will put him in harm’s way.
Will’s first stop is the latest crime scene, in Atlanta, where a large, strong man used suction cups to quietly break the sliding glass door in the home. He slashed the throat of Mr. Leeds, shot and strangled Mrs. Leeds, and then executed their children. The killer is facetiously dubbed the “Tooth Fairy” due to bite marks he leaves on his female victims. The FBI can’t determine a motive or a pattern, but a fingerprint is discovered on the eyeball of the dead boy. To further get into the mindset of his target, Will heads to Baltimore to confront Lecktor, held at a maximum security psychiatric ward. Hopefully, the imprisoned man can shed light on the Tooth Fairy’s fantasies – which could lead to a motif for victim selection.
Not surprisingly, the incarcerated Hannibal Lecktor is the most interesting character in the film, proving that his role is an indispensable window into the mesmerizing fascination of serial killers. He’s deviously intelligent and disturbingly vengeful. Also included are the nerve-wracking scrambling of law enforcement, struggling to outsmart Lecktor and outpace the Tooth Fairy, and the frantic deciphering of cryptic codes. Utilizing the press to toy with the murderer, resorting to putting cops in the line of fire as lures, and repeatedly failing to catch the antagonist through carefully orchestrated setups all create greater opportunities to ramp up the suspense. Building such resourceful villains means that the heroes must be increasingly perceptive – or lucky. Since the film is based on the novel “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris, odds are in favor of cleverness over contrivances.
Brilliantly, the Tooth Fairy isn’t even revealed until just over an hour into the film, keeping the tension remarkably high. His eventual reveal is frightening and perturbing; there exists a sense of uncertainty and spontaneity in the scenario, never giving audiences a chance to predict what might happen next. Time is also allotted for the Tooth Fairy’s character development, focusing on the strangeness in which he communicates and the opportunity he has for connecting with another human in a normal environment. Like Lecktor, there’s a distinct weirdness tingeing the murderer subjects, with transformation and discovery as major themes – which are equally predominant in Harris’ sequel novel, “The Silence of the Lambs.” Here, a subplot of Will’s personal life being strained by his work – visualized chiefly through his young son’s inquisitiveness over Lecktor’s capture and Will’s mental breakdown afterwards – also receives due attention. Notably, the profiler never mentions Hannibal’s cannibalistic tendencies.
Adding to the presentation is the music, which has a hallucinogenic quality to it, not unlike the electronic tones from “Blade Runner,” coupled with flashback sequences of Will’s paradisiacal vacationing. Songs by various artists (primarily The Reds) create a disconnected sense of narration, as if viewers are to be drawn in or pushed away from the action at alternating moments. It’s unique and creative, if not entirely fitting to supplement the dark and bleak atmosphere (with a pervasively foreboding mood to match). Perhaps over-stylized at times, “Manhunter” is nevertheless a slick, absorbing murder mystery with characters that are bound to lure audiences back for future theatrical episodes.
– Mike Massie