Hannibal Rising (review)

Undercooked Ham

So, this Hannibal Lecter Babies movies, it’s mostly just boring, and in the rare few moments when it isn’t boring, the rare few moments when it dares to be even the slightest bit adventurous, it’s either risible or reprehensible. It takes one of the greatest boogeymen in the history of cinema and turns him into a comic book villain. Oh, and it’s ridiculously banal, to boot.

This unholy fiend, this inhuman monster, this Hannibal Lechter, what could possibly have driven him to his unspeakable crimes, to the depths of his sadistic atrocity? See, it’s like this: He had a rotten childhood. Really. And sure, plenty convincing and poignant stories can be and have been told about rotten childhoods creating rotten adults, but this is not one of those stories. The possibilities for one are here: We meet young Lecter, maybe 10 years old or so, in 1944, as Nazi tanks are rolling into the Lithuanian village where he and his family lives. Well, they live in Castle Lecter, which instantly brings thoughts to mind of, oh, Castle Frankenstein or something. Not generous thoughts, not thoughts about tapping into archetypes and rich veins of mythology, but instead thoughts about clichés and crude glomming onto the power of other, better stories.
But still I waited, thinking: Interesting, what Thomas Harris the novelist and screenwriter is setting up here, Hannibal a product of the horrors of World War II, Hannibal a monster civilization made. And yet the film never follows through with that. Young Lecter (Aaron Thomas) and his toddler sister, Mischa, (Helena Lia Tachovska) end up being held captive by a cruel band of Lithuanian looters (led by Rhys Ifans: Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, Vanity Fair), and Something Bad happens. The film keeps flashing back to this event as it moves on to follow the teenaged Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel: A Very Long Engagement), as if there were some suspense in how this Something Bad resolved itself, but knowing what we know about Lecter, we can guess what happened. And so the heart and soul of the young Lecter is destroyed, and he vows revenge, and this is why he is a monster.

Except, you know, 99.9999 percent of the people who survived even the worst horrors of WWII did not turn into sociopathic monsters, no matter how traumatized they were. And revenge is one thing, but why does he continue to murder and cannibalize after his revenge is complete, as it is by the end of this film? I mean, sure, okay: He’s gone mad. But none of what we see in the film feels like a persuasive portrait of a descent into madness. It’s just: boom, he’s crazy. So we’re back to the same old “he’s just evil,” which is boring in a movie that’s supposed to be about how he got to be evil. Look, he’s just bad, okay. Jeez, stop bugging the movie already. Man.

The scariest thing about Hannibal Rising is that this seems to indicate that there will have to be another movie, in order to explain the explanation of Lecter’s evil, which will basically negate the ostensible reason for this film’s existence. It’s all shorthand anyway, this Hannibal Rising, as if the movie assumes we don’t really care about how Hannibal got to be the way he is and just want to see him eat someone’s liver with some fava beans and nice chianti for the first time. Quid pro quo, audience — quid pro quo. You show up, and Hannibal will eat someone’s cheeks. “He picked some wild mushrooms and made a brochette: mushrooms and cheeks.” a French cop says, so casual, like he sees human cannibalism every day. Probably he saw The Silence of the Lambs. Apparently the French police detective (Dominic West: The Forgotten, Mona Lisa Smile) who is trying to tie Lecter to a brutal murder has too: He dubs Lecter “monstrous” after one brief meeting, perhaps the quickest diagnosis in the history of law enforcement.

It’s all very standard-potboiler by the end — it’s even got a damsel in distress in Gong Li (Curse of the Golden Flower, Miami Vice), who plays Lecter’s aunt-by-marriage, through whom we get to see Lecter develop an erotic fascination with blood and violence. Which is a bit yucky, but low in the ranking of all the many things wrong with this film. Then again, making a hero of a monster and suggesting that there are some people who deserve to be tortured has become par for the course for horror flicks these days, so even that’s not surprising anymore. Disturbing, yes, if not in the way the film wants to disturb. But so predictable as to be banal itself.

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