It’s finally here. Four days shy of its tenth anniversary of release, “Silence of the Lambs” finally has a sequel. That 1991 film based on Thomas Harris’ novel was a commercial hit that went on to score Oscars for nearly all of its major participants. It made the careers of director Jonathan Demme and stars Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.
Of course, a lot can change in a decade. The awards seem to have sucked the life out of Demme and Foster. Demme followed up his triumph with a few minor documentaries, one very overrated film (“Philadelphia”), and one truly awful and pretentious one (“Beloved”). Foster seemed to have promptly lost any sex appeal she had, though it didn’t stop her from making romantic stinkers like “Sommersby” and “Anna and the King”. Hopkins, now 63, seems to have attempted to make up for lost time in his career with roles in over two dozen features and voice-overs in a few others. Some were good, (“Remains of the Day”, “Howard’s End”), some were, uh, different (“Nixon”, “Dracula”), some were just stunningly bad (“Instinct”, “Freejack”). Hey, at least he’s trying new things.
Speaking of new things, there are a lot of differences between “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal”. Behind the camera, there’s a new director, Ridley Scott; new screenwriters, David Mamet and Steve Zallian; all new producers and even a new studio as Orion Pictures went down the tubes not long after the release of “Lambs”. The story, based on Harris’ recent novel, is VERY different, but more on that shortly. In front of the lens, only Hopkins and Frankie Faison in a small role return. This all isn’t necessarily so bad. Sometimes (in light of Demme’s and Foster’s recent track record) it’s good to try new things. However, before I get into my (mixed) response to “Hannibal”, we should take a look at what the character of Dr. Lecter has been in the past. Yeah, this is going to be another long-a*s review. I’ll get to the point eventually.
Let’s first look at the print version. Thomas Harris is not the most prolific of novelists. Four books in a little under 30 years will attest to that. However, all four have now been made into films. The first three books, “Black Sunday”, “Red Dragon”, and “Silence of the Lambs”, are all thrillers that revolve around a race against time to avert death, whether by a terrorist action (the first one) or by serial killer (the other two). “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs” both contain the character of Hannibal Lecter and other supporting characters and bear a few other similarities.
“Red Dragon” came to the screen as Michæl Mann’s “Manhunter” in 1986 and features the first appearance of Lecter (Brian Cox) as wells as FBI director Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina). Instead of the character of Clarice Starling, there’s the quite different Will Graham (William Petersen). When the book was first printed in 1981, the word “profiler” hadn’t really come into use but that’s what he was. When the story begins, Jack Crawford talks Graham out of retirement to help track down a serial killer of entire families who calls himself the Red Dragon. Graham, not the most stable of people, retired in the first place due to his violent confrontations with two killers, the last of whom is Lecter. The detective has the uncanny ability to gradually crawl into the though processes of the lunatics he hunts down. At a certain point he decides to visit Lecter, not so much for the doctor’s opinion on this new case but so that Graham can regain his mind-set.
In Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs”, young FBI recruit Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is helping to hunt down a killer referred to as Buffalo Bill. She innocently decides along the way to take her case files to Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) for help. We know how that turned out.
From the first two books and films a not always consistent picture arises of America’s favorite fictional serial killer. In “Red Dragon/Manhunter”, no reference is ever made (to my memory) of Hannibal actually being a cannibal. The movie states that his victims were all college girls, but the novel disputes that. Each version does indicate that authorities know of nine victims at that time that he had killed. Two others survived, one on a respirator in a Baltimore hospital (more on him later) and another still living in a Denver mental institution. Both versions also indicate that Lecter is not quite like other serial killers, and due to his training and intellect, the only person who had ever been able to get inside his head was Will Graham.
Now there’ve been a lot of arguments over who created the better Lecter, Brian Cox or Anthony Hopkins. Cox was much colder while Hopkins has been a little hammy. Based on existing descriptions, there seems to actually be a good reason for this. The more cultured aspects of his personality seem to be some kind of compensation for his purely animalistic side. He’s like a tiger. He can be all calm and regal one moment; then he sees his opening and pounces on his prey. This also plays into his apparent obsession with FBI manhunters. The difference is that, on some level he views Graham as being his equal since he’s the guy who tracked him down. As such, their exchanges involved Lecter constantly testing the man to find his weaknesses. With Starling however, their interplay was more of a mating dance as “Silence of the Lambs” demonstrates a clear affection for the young agent. Plus, at the time he just didn’t get out much and beggars can’t be choosers. Anyway, this could support the kind of strutting peacock performance of Hopkins as the majority of his dialogue was with Starling.
Still with me? Now we get to “Hannibal”. Everybody wanted a sequel to the hit “Silence of the Lambs”, but Thomas Harris was in no hurry to deliver it. With Lecter for once the subject of the hunt (and for once the story would be about an already identified killer) the new story just wasn’t going to be like the previous two. Also, Lecter had never been previously seen outside of a cell or just escaping from one. He’d never been depicted operating in a normal setting. What exactly would Harris now have him do?
The movie begins much as the book with three people whose fate will connect ten years after the events of “Silence of the Lambs”. Lecter has just moved to Italy and killed a museum curator whose job he wanted. Starling (Julianne Moore) is about to have an FBI bust go up on flames on her watch through no fault of her own. Then there’s Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), apparently now the only person to have survived one of Lecter’s attacks, though just barely. An extremely wealthy sex offender, Verger was drugged by the doctor then ordered to slice off his own face and feed it to his dogs. He’s looked better. He’s also looking for payback. His money can attract some major help in law enforcement. This would include Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), an Italian police detective who stumbles upon Lecter while investigating the disappearance of that museum curator and Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), a sleazebag from the Justice Department with a jones for Starling.
Close to losing her job after the bad bust, Verger pulls strings to put Starling on Lecter’s trail, newly reopened with new evidence provided by Verger’s own sources. At that point it’s a race between Clarice and Verger to reach the doctor. That is, until Verger realizes that the one weakness displayed by his attacker is a fondness for Special Agent Starling. It’s going to get really ugly.
There are some significant problems. It’s not paced well. There are long patches in the first half where Clarice is barely present, and she’s as important to the story as the title character. Too many plot developments are contingent upon the actions of a pair of essentially corrupt cops, and Liotta’s underwritten and unredeemable part and over-the-top performance threaten to send the whole movie off the rails. It’s easy to blame the script, but unfortunately many of the problems here exist in the book. While Ridley Scott is a master at building worlds on screen, he’s not great at fixing story problems. Give him a fantastic screenplay and he can create a masterpiece. Give him a deeply flawed script and it will at least look nice.
There are other details from the novel that strain credulity. One that survived is the comment that whenever possible, Lecter prefers to kill and feast only on the rude. Any attempt to explain the boogeyman like this is usually met with a lot of eye-rolling. The biggest problem most people had with the novel was the ending. I’m not going to tell you what it is, just that the movie isn’t quite the same as the book. The divergent areas largely concern how the relationship between Hannibal and Clarice is defined. The film’s ending is probably more satisfying. The last fifteen minutes are pretty harsh, but I’d have to say they were justified and far more supported by the previous story than what occurred in the book.
This picture is not for everyone. Far more gory than any of its predecessors, it’s all about pushing buttons to find out where the characters and the audience stand. Despite the problems though, I was still entertained. Not the greatest movie in the world, but I was pretty engrossed for a couple of hours. It’s not the sequel anyone was probably wishing for, but the movie that could have satisfied everyone was probably impossible to make. More character study than thriller, it can stand on its own merits. It’s probably not exactly what you wanted, but it just might be enough.