Of course, I couldn’t just leave it at finally watching Silence of the Lambs or rewatching Manhunter. I cannot explain it, but every time I get within a mile of the, for lack of a better term, Thomas Harris serial killer lore, I get completely sucked in. It’s not even about Hannibal Lecter for me; he clearly became the most popular character, as the post-Silence novels and their film adaptations bear his name—not Will Graham’s or Clarice Starling’s—in their titles, and the NBC show was titled Hannibal for a reason (the current, brand new Clarice series on CBS aside). For me, Hannibal himself is such a small part of a larger interconnected web of behavioral analysts, hospital staff, reporters, forensic scientists, and associated spouses, friends, and victims. Although he’s the thing that sticks out and looms large in the public consciousness of this series, the Chesapeake Ripper is still only a part of what makes for an incredibly engaging whole.
Ridley Scott‘s 2001 film Hannibal, based on Harris’s 1999 novel of the same name, is generally pretty poorly regarded. Although Rotten Tomatoes is obviously a dubious metric, it’s the second lowest ranked of all of the Harris film adaptations there at a “rotten” score of 40%, beating only 2007’s Hannibal Rising‘s meager 16%; it’s easily surpassed by the certified fresh 93% and 96% respective scores for Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs as well as as adequate and accurate 68% summation for the tepid Red Dragon (2002). It had been a very long time since I saw Hannibal, and even that viewing had been on television (with its already bloated 132 minute runtime further expanded to accommodate commercials), so my recollections of it were both fuzzy and not very fond, so down the rabbit hole I went.
After (spoiler alert for a 30 year old movie that’s arguably one of the five most iconic films of the first half of the nineties) Hannibal’s escape from custody in Memphis and his flight from the country at the end of Silence, Dr. Hannibal Lecter has essentially settled in Florence and taken on the identity of one Dr. Fell, curator and caretaker of a breathtakingly beautiful old school library, with the implication that Lecter killed the man who had the position before his arrival. The detective overseeing the investigation into the disappearance of the previous caretaker, Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), suspects Lecter, but has no proof. Stateside, it’s been ten years since Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore, taking over for Jodie Foster) captured Jame Gumb, aka “Buffalo Bill,” and despite her obvious talent and a career-making rescue of a senator’s daughter, she’s still being held back by sexism within the FBI, both overtly and subtly. While overseeing a drug bust, she spies that one of their suspects has a baby in a child carrier and calls off the raid, but her orders are ignored by a local dick-swinging detective who previously gave her some light misogynistic backtalk, committing the whole squad to a deadly shootout that endangers an infant.
Elsewhere, paralyzed and disfigured child molester Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), attended by his put-upon personal physician Cordell (Željko Ivanek), is scheming. Verger is one of that exceptionally rare breed: a victim of Lecter’s who was left alive, although his condition is a result of Lecter’s questionable psychological ministrations. The details are rather lurid, but essentially, Verger’s dogs ate his face … after he carved it off while under the influence of drugs. Verger is ludicrously wealthy; in fact, he’s rich enough to have henchmen in different hemispheres, some of whom are solely devoted to training boars to devour a human being in preparation for his vengeance on Lecter. Back in Langley, Assistant Director Noonan (Francis Guinan) pulls Starling from field duty following the incident while her professional nemesis, a Justice Department official named Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), hectors her during the entire dressing down. Verger, who understands Lecter’s motivations better than most, learns of this and pulls a few strings to get Starling reassigned to the pursuit of Lecter, correctly surmising that the cannibal psychologist’s fascination with the agent will prompt him to reach out to her; this also gives the FBI a chance to work on the optics of Starling’s recent failure and how it reflects on the organization, both by playing to her strengths and invoking the ghost of past success.
Hannibal sends Clarice a taunting letter, on which he deliberately leaves a faint remnant of a bespoke hand cream, which allows Clarice to snag a few threads and track him down to Florence, but Verger’s gambit is also working almost too well. Inspector Pazzi is looking to land a huge payday to appease the expensive tastes of his younger wife, and against Clarice’s direct recommendation, he passes on the opportunity to arrest Lecter outright, instead gambling that he can turn the man over to Verger for the $3M reward. His greed proves to be his undoing, as Lecter kills him gruesomely and evades Verger’s men. Verger pays Krendel to plant evidence that Clarice is deliberately hindering her own investigation in order to raise suspicion of her motives, and Lecter returns to the states and toys with Clarice a bit before Verger’s stateside goons capture him. Clarice, ignored by her superiors, breaks into the Verger estate to arrest Lecter, but is shot before her rescue/apprehend plan succeeds. Verger’s boars find them, but they ignore Lecter, presumably smelling no fear on him, and instead attack an injured guard. Lecter suggests Cordell simply push Verger into the boar pit and blame it on Lecter himself, which the physician does, and Lecter escapes with Clarice back to her home, where she awakens to find her bullet wound tended and herself dressed for dinner. Downstairs, Lecter has since apprehended Krendler and, as a drugged and captive Clarice watches in horror, removes part of the dolt’s brains, gives it a little fry, and feeds it to him. Lecter, fascinated with what he sees of himself in Clarice, asks her to join him on the Dark Side, but she refuses and fights back, albeit with mixed success in her drugged state. Lecter once again escapes to dine another day, not that we ever see it, given that this is the last chronological appearance of the character in the film series.
One would think that the film’s biggest stumbling block would be in the recasting of Starling, but that’s not really so. Foster’s performance as Clarice is absolutely legendary, but if one had to recast the character, I doubt that there was a better choice than Moore. Although there are moments where her affectation of the Clarice accent verges on overkill and calls to mind Moore’s 30 Rock character Nancy Donovan in its general broadness, she delivers a reliably solid performance that grounds Clarice as she navigates the shark-infested waters of institutional sexism and the equally turbulent plain of her own troubled conscience. The problems here aren’t with her performance, or Hopkins’s either. After a long time away, he plays Lecter a little less broadly here than in Silence, as while the character was certainly menacing there, it strained the credibility of the narrative that that Lecter could have ever pretended to be a normal person at all. With Lecter now living more understatedly in Florence, he can play off some of his more quirkier mannerisms as merely foreign behavior, and he’s believable as someone who is eccentric but doesn’t immediately set off “serial killer” alarm bells. This Lecter seems completely in his element, effortlessly preparing for every potential wrinkle in his grand design, but the irony is that this almost makes him seem less scary. In Silence, Lecter is literally imprisoned but he never seems cornered, he’s just biding his time. Here, it seems like Lecter could have stayed hidden for quite some time if he hadn’t decided to contact Clarice and leave his breadcrumb trail, but instead of living his life in freedom, he comes back around to taunt Clarice because he loves the drama, which could arguably be considered more fun, but that doesn’t inherently make it more interesting.
Still, Foster’s absence looms large here, as does that of Jonathan Demme, who was invested in the idea of doing a sequel for a long time. Also gone is Ted Tally, who wrote the Silence screenplay. With Scott at the helm and an initial first draft of the screenplay written by David Mamet(!), one would think that the film was tee’d up for success, but not really. Even a mediocre sequel would have been a guaranteed success in, say, 1995, but by 2001 Lecter’s legacy had grown too expansive, like a cloud that has expanded and expanded but essentially become immaterial. You’d have been hard pressed to find anyone over the age of ten who couldn’t at least mangle the line about Lecter’s famous liver and fava bean dinner or do that little hiss thing, but that made him less menacing. From all reports, Harris took the whole thing in a bizarre direction in the book, wherein Clarice (albeit under the influence of drugs) accepts Hannibal’s invitation to let her hate flow through her, etc., and runs off with him in the end. Demme admitted that he simply couldn’t get his head around this idea, and Tally politely referred to both this plot development and the generally gorier nature of the Hannibal novel as “excesses.” I’d bet that also put Foster off of the project, although she’s always played it off that she was too busy working on Flora Plum, which you may have never heard of, since it’s still only a dream, and Foster has all but admitted that this was a convenient excuse. I imagine that if the film had followed that plot more, the reception would likely have been even worse, but no one gets to know what could have been. Then again, the best parts of the film are those that follow Lecter’s cat and mouse games with Piazza in Florence, as Scott makes great use of the city’s historic buildings and architecture to craft some beautiful shots, and Piazza’s increasingly risky attempts to get some evidence of Lecter’s identity are met with Lecter’s casually effortless countermoves. It’s genuinely fun, and it’s completely separate from just about everything having to do with Clarice; in the year of our lord 2021, post-Harry Potter, they’d probably split the book into two films, and the one about Lecter and Piazza would be the more compelling one.
Personally, I wasn’t happy about the news media being villainized for how they portray the botched drug raid that’s pinned on Starling. The audience is supposed to cringe in sympathy with Clarice when a news anchor smarmily waxes on about the FBI’s tendency to use excessive force, because we in the audience know that it’s not her fault. In the real world, however, it’s been a decade since Silence, which was released mere weeks before the LAPD brutally beat Rodney King, marking one of the major turning points in the greater American discourse about police brutality. Even in Silence, when Clarice first enters Jack Crawford’s office, he notes that he picked her for the Buffalo Bill assignment because, during a lecture of his, she “grilled” him about the bureau’s well-known issues with civil rights issues. That blind disregard for the reality of law enforcement’s problems in our world lends the whole thing a lack of specificity; it doesn’t feel moored (no pun intended) to reality in the same way that Silence did. Also contributing to this general ambiguous vibe is the very pre-9/11 nature of its storytelling. I’m not just talking about how easy it is for Hannibal Lecter to trot the globe while also being on the FBI’s Most Wanted list (alongside Osama bin Laden, no less) and how he travels with a bottle of wine without the TSA taking that from him, I’m talking about the clumsy attempts at addressing the glass ceiling that Clarice is up against. Within a few months, the treatment of the FBI in our media was about to become extremely jingoistic for quite a while, and we’re still living in the narrative fallout. Consider, for instance, how Fringe differed from its spiritual predecessor The X-Files, which was itself partially inspired by Silence of the Lambs, in its treatment of the Bureau; in the former, the FBI is mostly a force for good, while in the latter, Mulder and Scully’s larger organization is riddled with obstruction and maliciousness at every turn. It would be a long time before we would see any nuance in stories about the FBI again, and now it’s handled with a more surgical approach (while also still mostly being uninspected in its uncritical treatment of law enforcement, which is bad), but it makes any interaction between Clarice and her colleagues with whom she has conflict feel blunt and careless.
Ultimately, Hannibal is fine. It’s overstuffed, but the entire entertainment commentary industry is abuzz with talk about a superhero movie that clocks in at a solid 4 hours, so if anything, the world is more ready for this film now than it was twenty years ago. It’s been thirty years since we last (and first) saw Jodie Foster play Clarice Starling, not just ten, so it’s also easier to accept Moore in that role. The most surprising thing about it is that the Florence plot in this one may actually be better than the version in NBC’s Hannibal, at least in the sense that I could follow what was happening; Hannibal in Florence was that show at its most hallucinogenic, baroque, and convoluted, to its detriment, in my opinion. I’d still recommend it over this one as a whole, though.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond