It's sort of the lost Hannibal Lecter movie. But, like The Silence of the Lambs, 1986's Manhunter isn't really about the notorious cannibal and serial killer -- it's about how his conscienceless psychopathy affects those around him, and how those who dare to take advantage of his genius find that the help he can provide in capturing others like him may not be worth the risk.
Will Graham (William L. Petersen: The Contender), though a young man, has retired from the FBI, and there seems to be nothing his old boss, Agent Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina: Snatch, Reindeer Games), can do to convince him to come in on the tough new serial murder case with which the Bureau desperately needs his expertise. Will has been burned -- badly -- by some profiling experience in the past, something that put his wife and preteen son in danger as well. Yet getting inside the heads of serial killers is what Will is good at, and he finds himself reluctantly drawn back to it.
It's hard to believe that William Petersen didn't become a bigger star than the character actor he is today -- his almost Russell Crowe-like intensity is what keeps Manhunter so absorbing through its slow buildup, as Will joins the investigation and attempts to duplicate in his own head the psyche of a killer who slays entire families and rearranges the bodies to give himself an audience. The killer works on a lunar cycle, committing his crimes on the night of the full moon, which gives Will a little over three weeks to find him before he strikes again. This is a quiet, unshowy race-against-time flick, in which the ticking of the clock is measured more in Will's intensifying attempts to retain his own sanity as he gets to know the mindset of his prey better and better.
Based on Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, the film's title change is appropriate -- a Chinese pictogram meaning "Red Dragon" comes to represent the killer, but the focus here is entirely on the man hunting him. And the most electrifying moments come as Will has to face the man who drove him into retirement: Dr. Hannibal Lektor (Brian Cox: Nuremberg, Longitude) -- inexplicably misspelled here -- is in maximum-security custody, put there by Will, and the experience has left Will scarred, emotionally and physically. Cox, with much less screen time than Anthony Hopkins had in Lambs, is just as riveting, oozing malevolence as he and Will taunt each other, both with the same goal that neither dare articulate -- securing Lektor's assistance in finding the Red Dragon. And will we ever learn exactly what Lektor did to Will to wound him so? The suspense is delightfully excruciating.
Director Michael Mann was known chiefly as the creator of Miami Vice when Manhunter was released, and the visual influence of the TV show is unmistakable -- the film's bright colors and clean lines balance surprisingly well with the dark, cerebral horror of its subject matter. But hints of Mann's recent, brilliant The Insider abound, too -- long, steady shots that add a terrifying stillness. Manhunter whispers rather than shouts, and is all the more effective for it.
If you find yourself disappointed in Hannibal, check out Manhunter for another dose of everything that made The Silence of the Lambs so enthralling.