Manhunter ★★★★

Michael Mann's "Manhunter" is a deliberate-paced serial killer drama awash in the aesthetic of a bygone decade. Based on Thomas Harris's "Red Dragon," Mann's film underplays the horrific and mysterious elements of the novel but keys in on the character and drama of its protagonist. It is an almost anti-septic thriller whose thrills are in short supply, but whose character drama is rich.

Mann's film focuses on Will Graham, a former FBI profiler pulled out of retirement to hunt a killer called The Tooth Fairy. Graham, played with slow-burning charisma by William Petersen, is tormented by his work, past and present. He is slowly cracking under the strain of the horrors he has seen but is driven by a pertinacious responsibility to save lives. The turmoil behind Graham's eyes powers the best parts of Mann's script. The profiler's interactions with his coworkers, family, and the cannibal, Hannibal Lektor, (not to be cinematically spelled correctly until 1991) are electric. When the film turns its attention to Tom Noonan's suspected serial killer, that electric energy and focus dissipates.

The film consists of widescreen compositions that range from airy and open, to tight and claustrophobic. Shot composition and selection bolsters tone and character. The sterile whites and clean chromes of Mann's color palette are reveled in as if to visually juxtapose the dark, gruesome subject matter.

Looked on with a contemporary set of eyes, "Manhunter" is a slick, handsome relic. Mann's camera targets the dated architecture, colors, and fashions that were cutting edge in 1986. Through this, however, Mann establishes a sense of 1980s-noir, locking the film into the trappings, pulses, and moods of its era. Much like the classic noir of the 1940s, this film is an unwavering part of its place and time.

Assessing the sum of its parts, "Manhunter" is a good looking and engrossing drama with a narrative that is mostly effective. The film is at its richest when it bears down on the internal and external conflicts of its hero, not on its dramatically underdone villain. That may be the point, however, as "Manhunter" is built to showcase the hunter, leaving the man only as a device to spur that hunter to renewed action.

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