Manhunter ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

A hand-held POV opens Manhunter, and the serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy silently intrudes on his victim's home, climbs up the steps, pokes a harsh light at their sleeping body, and we know what happens next. It is as frighteningly effective as the night-vision sequence in the basement, or how Lecter and the countless male eyes hover over Clarice in the masterpiece Silence of the Lambs, the next in Thomas Harris' series. And then it steps into a different film, something quite drudging and overly serious and so unmistakeably 80s.

In what is Mann's most stylistically distinct film, he creates a strict colour code that maps out our characters. For the brilliant profiler Graham and his wife he drenches the frame with a cool, romantic blue, which is an easy way of hiding just how shallow of a character she really is, and how little solace she actually provides to the man who could have easily become a killer himself. Elsewhere, Dollarhyde's remote home is lit overhead by this eerie green glow as if a UFO was endlessly hovering above, and for much of the police work and office and holding cells we have pure white - nothing grimy, nothing morally decadent, but it matches Brian Cox quite well. The entire building is even more impressive - the post-modern architecture of the Hugh Museum of Art in Atlanta, with its cavernous spirals, pristine walls and more glass windows than you could imagine.

In Cox we have the most polite and affable version of Lecter, which has sparked endless debates on him vs Hopkins' performance. His supporters argue that it is precisely the veneer of authenticity and kindness that makes Cox so genuinely psychopathic and terrifying, but what good is it if there is no opposing force, no shattering of the mirror? Near the end of their conversation, Graham want to hear no more, and goes to leave, and the door conveniently does not open immediately, and he is forced to block out Lecter as he struggles to escape. He runs and runs and runs until he is outside, huffing and puffing with fear, and that is how he is captured candidly by Lounds (and that further ridicules the reaction). Lambs had no need to do this, to force emotional stress - Clarice was terrified, but all the same she could have left Lecter in that cell and never visited again, but she doesn't, and it is all the more intriguing, personal, and intense. Cox's Lecter provides no reason to fear or be swallowed up by his gaze, and brings nothing substantial to the film's narrative. What doesn't help is Petersen's performance, who takes each whispered and immersive comment profiling the killer to maximum profundity, and then adds second person perspective to milk very last drop of seriousness. In one moment, Petersen simply gazes at the camera in close-up, brooding endlessly, and the score hits overkill as it attempts to signal a moment of fear and retrospection.

As if that wasn't enough, each scene is also heavily synthesized, painfully and overly so. It's as if the sound mixer had somehow been snubbed on the credit list, and to compensate they had turned the volume knob all the way up in every pivotal moment. It makes no attempt at subtlety, but blares and blares, drowning out everything else on the screen. One of the film's better moments is marked by the score's absence; the quiet, intimate, conversation between Graham and his son, where he attempts to explain the current situation, and does not resort to dumbing down or use of clumsy metaphor. A rare moment of triumph for the soundtrack has Shriekback's Coelocanth sync up perfectly with the booming heartbeats of a tranquillised tiger, and the way the flute repeats three notes immediately conjures up imagery of a powerful beast stalking its prey through an Eastern jungle. Dollarhyde feels drawn to that kind of natural power, but it is also an intensely intimate moment for the blind Reba, as she runs her fingers through the fur. We have been warned of the serial killer's intentions for the 'surprise', and yes there is surprise, but in a good way, and the anxiety we hold is blissfully replaced with a scene of such sensuality, a hundredfold more for someone who relies on hearing and touch. And so, they sleep together later that night.

The film ends in the messiest climax of them all. A small consolation to this is something I liked; the way in which wife and son are remarkably safe and out of the picture, and it is not some life or death situation which forces the detective to take action, but his own increasing fears and troubles. But it is nigh impossible to sell the slow-motion jumping through glass moment. Mann had to shoot this with a skeleton crew and no special effects backing him up, and it shows; he switches up all the lights to obscure the packets of ketchup masquerading at blood, his edits jump erratically from profile to close-up with no regard for coherency or pacing, and in perhaps the weirdest decision of them all, he utilises jump cuts to show gunshots and flailing bodies drop again and again. Oh, and he tosses more slow-motion in there.

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