Hannibal (review)

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“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Ten years ago, that line was terrifying. Today, it’s a joke, a punchline, a bit of cultural detritus. And so is Hannibal Lecter in Ridley Scott’s revisit of the infamous cannibal’s tale. Hannibal may be the first slasher movie for grownups since… well, since Scott’s own Alien more than twenty years ago, but it has nowhere near the heart — or the power — of his earlier flick. And though Hannibal may have a sophisticated sheen that your typical Nightmare on Elm Street entry lacks, it’s still just as pointless an exercise in bloodletting.
Ten years after the events of The Silence of the Lambs, FBI agent Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore: Magnolia, The End of the Affair — a lucky escape for Jodie Foster) is still a straight arrow, and still dealing with her chauvinistic law-enforcement colleagues. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins: The Grinch, Mission: Impossible 2) is still on the loose but has been quiet — he’s even been removed from the FBI’s Most Wanted list. But the past comes bubbling up again through Mason Verger (an uncredited Gary Oldman: The Contender, Lost in Space, who may never make a film in which he is recognizable again), Lecter’s only victim to have survived, though not in very good shape. Verger, rich beyond dreams of avarice, has been funding his own private effort to find Lecter, and it seems about to pay off. Starling is brought in at the order of Justice Department honcho Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta: Cop Land, Goodfellas), Verger’s paid stooge.

There’s a lot of rather tedious police procedure as Lecter is tracked down in Florence, Italy, where he is playing cannibal and mouse with police detective Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini). Pazzi knows who this man who’s calling himself “Dr. Fell” is, and Lecter knows Pazzi knows, but there is a surprising absence of the mind games Lecter teased Starling with. Instead, like waiting for Ghostface to jump out from behind a curtain, Hannibal consists, for a long while, of wondering how long it will take Lecter to get hungry for Italian.

But that’s precisely what we’re supposed to wonder, because Lecter is no longer Lecter but a cardboard cutout of Lecter. And Starling, in her stubborn dedication to catch Lecter, is no longer Starling but a cardboard cutout of Starling. It’s neither actor’s fault — Hopkins is obviously having a ball, and Moore picks up confidently where Foster left off. The fault lies with the script, astonishingly lackluster, considering that it was adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel by David Mamet (State and Main) and Stephen Zaillian (Schindler’s List). For all the blood onscreen, Hannibal is bloodless, downshifting characters who were genuine in Lambs to pawns of the audience’s expectations here. Merely uttering the name “Lecter” is now supposedly sufficient to imply psychological terror, so any actual attempts to create such can be dispensed with, and we can get right on to the gore. Alas, Hannibal Lecter is no longer trying to mess with your mind, just with your brain. Just wait… you’ll see what I mean.

Ridley Scott shoots a beautiful film — simple images, like that of cigarette smoke rising in wisps in the subdued blue nighttime lighting of a medieval library, or ghostly figures at an after-opera party, are what’s truly memorable here. But his efforts to keep our attention come down to playing the bloody messes onscreen for laughs. And he succeeds, sometimes — the final sequence is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it’s so calculatedly outrageous that you can’t help but laugh, though I also burst into tears at its awfulness.

But all that means is that Hannibal is shocking but never truly frightening, and none of the “horror” here sticks with you the way that Lecter did in Lambs, merely staring at Starling from behind a wall of glass.

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