Josh Gillam’s review published on Letterboxd:
Former FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) comes out of retirement to catch an elusive serial killer, reluctantly enlisting the help of old enemy Dr Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), in Michael Mann’s neo-noir psychological horror crime thriller with Dennis Farina, Kim Greist, Tom Noonan and Joan Allen.
There’s something incredibly haunting about the steady, methodical way this plays out; it’s almost as if the film, much like its troubled protagonist, has witnessed these sorts of horrors before and will time and again, this sense of inevitably making for a strikingly unsettling experience.
I absolutely believe Petersen as this burnt-out profiler, convincingly playing someone who gets too deeply involved in cases for his own mental well-being, with the star conveying that core empathy along with a fascination/ repulsion dynamic that both males the character’s journey gripping and anchors this dark tale. He’s probably the best part of the entire film, bringing this (often fragile) warmth and sense of human connection that’s not always present elsewhere, as I found the film itself a bit too clinical to ever get completely invested in it.
Even though it all focuses around a man who is supposed to get too far into the thoughts of the killers he’s tracking, Francis Dollarhyde remains a frustratingly surface level antagonist; any dragon symbolism was cut out, along with presumably a lot of his deeper motivation for the killings, so once the character is properly introduced about two thirds of the way in the film is never quite able to flesh him out into a completely believable or interesting character in his own right, which is unfortunately also true for most of the other supporting roles as well.
Noonan does make up for that with his endlessly chilling performance, however, staying in character throughout the shoot in a way that apparently unnerved people on set, and he brings a level of disturbed intensity here that (mostly) helps to add something extra to a fairly one dimensional villain. Cox is only given a couple of scenes in a supporting turn soon to be immortalised by Anthony Hopkins just a few years later, but I actually thought the former’s comparatively restrained, suavely sinister take on the character felt a lot more believable (if less iconic).
I liked the slow burn approach Mann takes in telling this story, which takes its time to set each piece of the puzzle into place, but this style did feel too static for my taste; segments like the family’s move into hiding or Dollarhyde’s pursuit of a co-worker stop the plot in its tracks, ultimately not really adding all that much in the long run.
It must be quite difficult to translate the sort of internal profiling work Graham does to the screen, but I don’t think Mann quite manages to pull it off, leading to lots of dry investigation scenes that never probe into the troubled character’s mind nearly enough, instead taking a more rote procedural approach that downplays this psychological side and is much less interesting for it.
The director had not long come off of running Miami Vice, and brings his distinctive neon-tinged style to the project, but this aesthetic doesn’t really fit the dark story that’s being told, with the heavy synth-focused soundtrack adding to the feeling that this is like some brooding 70s thriller that’s been trapped in a gaudy 80s package.
Nevertheless, there’s a real precision to the way it all unfolds that does pay off by the end, with everything that happens in that last confrontation once ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ kicks in reaching that perfect mix of unnerving and engrossing.
Manhunter is incredibly well made, but there’s a a detached quality to it that feels more than a little underwhelming. I think the film struggles to juggle Thomas Harris’ internalised approach when adapted to Mann’s more externalised sensibility, with these competing authorial voices ultimately leaving the final product a bit muddled personality-wise, but it’s the moments where this cooly observed perspective fully meshes with the director’s inventive imagery that it really soars, making for some unforgettable snatches of brilliance in what amounts to a bit of an inconsistent whole.