Michael Mann’s Manhunter is the first adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter cycle and would easily be the greatest if The Silence of the Lambs didn’t happen to be the most perfect horror film ever committed to celluloid. It’s based on Red Dragon, the first novel in the cycle, published in 1981, which follows FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) who comes out of retirement to chase down a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy (Francis Dollarhyde). He’s supervised by FBI agent Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) and consults extensively with incarcerated serial killer Hannibal “Lecktor” (Brian Cox). Tracking down and apprehending Hannibal was what caused Graham to retire in the first place, and he’s still haunted by the sociopath, who infiltrates his dreams, and seems to occupy a special place in his subconscious. As a result, Hannibal seems omnipresent here, despite only featuring in a couple of scenes (far less than in The Silence of the Lambs) while is perception and cognition undergirds the film as a whole, which often feels as if it is shot from his perspective, despite the fact that he is incarcerated for its entire duration, and only seen in a limited set of poses.
As that might suggest, Harris’ world is remarkably rich. While the plot ostensibly focuses on a single investigation, the present moment is continually displaced onto the future, as we wonder when the Tooth Fairy will strike again, and the past, as we receive glimpses of Hannibal’s career, and his relationship with Graham. Mann transmutes that narrative density into an informational density – a study in data that is at once malleable, and amenable to procedural intervention, but also arcane, requiring a leap of intuition that only the sociopath can provide. The film shimmers with an extraordinary tactile wholeness, like it is carved out of a single block of celluloid, in which details appear and recede in quite subliminal ways. Atrocities ramify retrospectively, rather than at the moment they occur, while revelations are buried beneath two or three different layers of mediation. Instead of unfolding in a linear fashion, the case, the two serial killers, and their shared apprehension of the world around them, emerge in the most profound sense of the word – they evoke a virtual sphere, a potentiality or futurity still nascent in the present, that can be felt but never quite visualised.
Of course, Mann’s style is highly visual but it operates here as a series of visual thresholds, horizons and aporia – sites of almost impossible liminality that start with the Florida beach where we first meet Graham in retirement. As a hyperreal sunset descends and looming synths ripple, the ocean becomes more and more otherworldly, until it feels like Graham is departing for outer space when he agrees to fly to Atlanta to investigate the Tooth Fairy case. Outer space emerges in the form of the Westin Peachtree Atlanta, close cousin of the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, the building that Fredric Jameson famously diagnosed as the emblem of postmodernism, partly because the design of these Westin hotels anticipates a virtual realm that doesn’t conform to regular physical coordinates: “This latest mutation in space – postmodern hyperspace – has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organise its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world.” So it is in Manhunter, which brims with a postmodern hyperspace that only sociopaths seem capable of properly mapping.
Investigating the Tooth Fairy and probing the mind of Hannibal thus becomes an exercise in second-order mapping – mapping their mapping. In the process, the urban backdrop of Atlanta dissociates into so many voids, notional spaces that brim with informational intensity and opacity. The city takes on an airbrushed and abstracted quality, as if it were synthesized in the same way as Michel Rubini’s futuristic score, and is almost entirely empty, apart from people performing administrative roles or fulfilling procedural purposes. Amidst this strange vacancy, pregnant in the same manner as the urban backdrops of video games, Mann evokes a synaesthetic immanence, an evolution of the eyeball, which the Tooth Fairy enacts in his two modi operandi – leaving a single fingerprint on the eyeballs of his victims, as if he had reached in to directly reset their optic nerve, and replacing their eyeballs with shards of broken mirror. In the crime scenes he leaves behind, he strains to see, and enjoins his pursuers to strain to see, a virtual hyperreal sphere shimmering at the threshold of the visible, as Graham recognises in the virtual and imagined conversations that he holds with him: “your primary sensory intake that makes your dream life is seeing – reflections, images, mirrors.”
Poised at the perceptual precipice of a postmodern image regime, the Tooth Fairy understands his vocation as approximating a divine other, and it is only after recognising this that Graham can inhabit and investigate the Tooth Fairy’s sightlines in turn. As the audience, we are privy to these in the opening shot of the film, a first person perspective of the Tooth Fairy as he moves through the house of one of his victims, in both a spiritual sequel to the opening of Halloween and an assertion that we have now transitioned into a new horror era. The Tooth Fairy longs to be regarded as a transcendental visualiser – “you are privy to a great becoming and you recognise nothing” – replacing the eyes of his victims with pools of radiant light that reflect his own gaze back at him in an endless feedback loop of megalomaniacal self-devotion: “If one does what God does enough times then one will become what God is.”
Whether figured in terms of religious transfiguration or the immanent horizon of digital technologies, this rapturous perception endows the Tooth Fairy, and the figure of the serial killer more generally, with a post-human simultaneity of perception. Despite being incarcerated, Hannibal seems capable of being in many different places at once, due to his ability to orchestrate media around him, whether through hacking a telephone placed in his cell or communicating with the Tooth Fairy through classifieds in a local newspaper. Likewise, Graham soon realises that he needs to outmediate the Tooth Fairy, and so enlists the help of a local reporter to stage a photograph designed to draw the killer into the open. However, this simultaneity of perception is perhaps clearest in the extent to which blinding white light dominates the palette of the film. As a fusion of all colours, and the endpoint of Mann’s flamboyant fluorescences, white light both condenses and opacifies all the visual data of Manhunter, initially in the form of the white houses of the Tooth Fairy’s victims, which Graham watches from afar, enjoining them to disclose their meaning. These white fields percolate throughout the entire film, often in quite unexpected ways, as when Graham and his son share a moment in a supermarket, paused in front of a shelf stocked with milk bottles.
White light intensifies most brilliantly around the Tooth Fairy himself, and indeed seems to emanate from him, as part of “the radiance of what I am becoming.” His aspiration is to both generate and inhabit a world that is composed of nothing but white light, and so he increasingly dons sunglasses, as if preparing himself for this blinding apocalypse, and reserves his murders for the peak of the lunar cycle, when the moon is at its brightest and most brilliant. He finds his natural romantic partner in Reba McClane, a blind colleague played by Joan Allen, who is plunged in a darkness as absolute as the light he wants to commune with. By describing objects to Reba, and drawing her hand over his face, he transmutes darkness into light, concatenates the spectrum with a single touch, culminating with the first time they sleep together, when the camera drifts up to an enormous black and white shot of the galaxy mounted on the wall behind his bed. The next morning, the Tooth Fairy awakens to find Reba on his jetty, relishing the feeling of the rising sun on her face, where he asks her not to return inside, as if prescient she has now transcended her blindness to access his own illumination.
This brilliant field finds its apotheosis in the white light box that the Tooth Fairy uses to develop photographs at Gateway Laboratories, the film development plant where he works. Not only does the Tooth Fairy take his modus operandi from this cutting-edge media space, but the twist of the film is that he has acquired all of his knowledge of the victims’ houses from the videos they had developed. This twist comes to Graham as he is watching these same videos for the tenth or twentieth time, in the form of the uncanny realisation that the Tooth Fairy has already seen everything he is watching. And while the Tooth Fairy may be killed, and Hannibal may remain in prison, this is the closing note of the film: that the world we inhabit, the physical coordinates of space and time, the residues of a traditional modernist metropolis, may have already been seen, remediated and weaponised by a virtual world that is already around us, and already being charted by the most arcane and insane amongst us.