Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Manhunter Review

With a lot of films, I can recall the exact place and time I first witnessed their stories unfold. Perhaps it was a theater trip with specific friends or family, or on an awkward date with a girlfriend in high school. Maybe it was at someone's home, or maybe my own in the middle of the night with the lights off, nothing but the images on screen flashing through the room to illuminate the darkest corners. For some reason, I don't recall when or where I first watched Manhunter. Released in 1986, I can be certain it wasn't at the cinema seeing as how I was only 2 when it graced theater screens. I'm sure it was at home, but I can't see it. "Do you see?". No, Francis, I don't. I'm confident I was alone because the only thing I remember quite vividly from my first journey into Michael Mann's lurid, unsettling cinematic world is how much it disturbed me. Shook me to my very core. No one was around to distract me, to make me feel protected from every accessible window and door that all suddenly needed to be double, no scratch that, triple checked that their locks were sturdy and functioning. Even locks didn't feel like enough.

The opening sequence in which we see a first-person perspective of a killer entering a home quietly in the middle of the night, walking through the darkness past items that make it quite clear that this isn't just a single person or a couple residing here, but a family. Children. The camera looks into a bedroom and we see one of them sleeping peacefully. So peacefully. So vulnerable. We move on to the next room down the hall, but it feels like a respite for the occupants we already laid eyes on rather than permanent safety. We shouldn't be here. These people should wake up in the morning with concerns no greater than breakfast or being tardy to school or work. If only the world were always so safe and simple.

We look into the master bedroom and hold steady for moments but it feels like forever. It's unbearable, the knowledge that the only thing scarier than being watched is waking up to such a horrific and unthinkable discovery. She does. She wakes up with a light shining in her eyes, and we don't see what happens next. Thank goodness. It's bad enough to assume and find out soon after that these assumptions were indeed correct. Literally only the opening minutes of Manhunter, before we have met a single character or understand even the most basic pieces of the plot and it's unshakable. A piece of cinema I can never escape from. I have been scared watching movies before of course, and I will be again for years to come, but Manhunter was and continues to be different because of that opening sequence. I don't fear what I see, what I can at least try to fight back against. I fear what I don't, what I never see coming.

"Do you see?"

Based on the novel Red Dragon by author Thomas Harris, Manhunter excellently combines the stylish, taut direction of Michael Mann with the story and characters that fill us with dread. Manhunter follows FBI Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) during his pursuit of a serial killer known as "The Tooth Fairy" (played with unsettling perfection by Tom Noonan), and the reason Graham has been put on the case is because he previously apprehended the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox), the character made famous by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Although successful in putting Lecter behind bars, his solving of the case came with a price, and he is forced to face these demons all over again even literally when he consults with Lester hoping to gain insight into the motivations of a killer.

Initially garnering mixed reviews and a poor showing at the box office, Manhunter has aged wonderfully and gained appreciation over the years. It's a terrific film that will send chills down your spine, and not just for that opening sequence that I devoted so many words too. For a film that taps into a very specific and disturbing fear of mine, it's sort of remarkable how often I feel compelled to revisit the picture and take in those hypnotic visuals as Mann plays with light and color in ways that feel essential to tell the story appropriately. The film's soundtrack is also memorable and vital, and even though it feels like it belongs in the 80's it doesn't date Manhunter in any negative fashion, instead matching the vibe and aesthetic perfectly.

I'm not sure why I don't really remember the first time I saw Manhunter, aside from the overwhelming feeling of dread that came along with it. Perhaps that's exactly why. Maybe I blocked out the big picture stuff that no longer feels irrelevant as the terror I felt and the sleep I lost that night weren't temporary but rather something I would carry with me long term. Every single time I give this disc another spin, it haunts me as if it was the very first time all over again, and while that doesn't sound fun to many people who probably want to avoid spending too much mental energy delving into their deepest, darkest fears, I embrace the fact that cinema is able to push those boundaries and make me feel something so profound.


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