Ratner: Red Dragon (2002)

Red Dragon is one of the stranger entries in the Hannibal Lecter universe. It’s written by Ted Tally, the screenwriter responsible for The Silence of the Lambs, and yet it’s also a beat-for-beat remake of Manhunter, the extraordinary first film in the Hannibal cycle, directed by Michael Mann. Of course, unlike Manhunter, Red Dragon is presented as a prequel to Silence, and recreates the iconic walk along the prison corridor to Hannibal’s cell. On top of that, Red Dragon features the earliest moment in the entire franchise before the release of Hannibal Rising, by way of a prefatory scene in which Lecter, played for the last time by Anthony Hopkins, hosts a dinner party for the local literati, before being caught by Will Graham, played by Edward Norton, in the manner described in Manhunter. Yet for all that Red Dragon features the inception point of the entire narrative, and gestures back even more distantly to a time when Hannibal’s crimes were simply known under the moniker of the “Chesapeake Cannibal,” it feels quite distinct from Manhunter, Silence and Hannibal – the late work to their magnificent trilogy, an exercise in connective tissue that is alternately banal and exhilarating.

Of course, the most vivid comparisons are with Manhunter, since this is exactly the same story. Once again, Graham is called out of Florida retirement by Jack Crawford, played now by Harvey Keitel, to investigate a string of murders by a perpetrator known only as the Tooth Fairy, played now by Ralph Fiennes. As part of the investigative process, Graham interviews Lecter and enlists the help of reporter Freddy Lounds, played now by Philip Seymour Hoffman, while relaying his findings to his wife, who is played by Mary-Louise Parker in a slightly bigger role than the original. Emily Watson also stars as Reba McClane, the blind co-worker who enters a relationship with the Tooth Fairy, also known as Francis Dollarhyde, while Frankie Faison and Anthony Heald reprise their roles as Barney Matthews and Frederick Chilton, the prison manager and psychiatric doctor overseeing Hannibal’s incarceration. While Tally’s screenplay does include a terrific final sequence in Miami that doesn’t appear in Mann, all the narrative beats are identical, though they are considerably more explicit and expository here.

Watching Manhunter and Red Dragon side by side really clarifies how much Mann’s film was an ode to postmodern hyperspaces – spaces that both gestured towards an immanent digital future and exceeded regular human perception in ways that required the preternatural perception of the serial killer as a new form of urban mapping. Whereas Mann’s film was released at the height of this moment, Ratner’s film occurs towards its end, when the virtual world that postmodernism tried to evoke in physical space was starting to come into its own in the digital field. As the Tooth Fairy himself puts it, “we live in a strange time, neither savage nor wise,” neither indebted to the primitive analog past but not yet fully acclimatised to an entirely virtual future either. This tends to tone down the lurid postmodern hyperbole that made Mann’s vision so unique, especially the fluorescent hues that he condensed into the blinding white of the Tooth Fairy’s vision. The Westin Peachtree, the iconic postmodern hotel that ushered in this futuristic world in the original film, and marked Graham’s arrival in Atlanta to investigate the murders, is replaced here with a cursory establishing shot of the Sheraton.

To say that Red Dragon is a less ambitious film than Manhunter is to somewhat miss its point, however, since this a prestige mainstream remake, an attempt to rein in the arcane power of Harris’ vision to the Miramax style of indie filmmaking as it stood at the start of the millennium. The networked aesthetic of the original is now replaced by a star-studded ensemble cast, while the auteurisms of Mann, Demme and Scott are translated into the journeyman style of Ratner. Likewise, the opening scene immediately announces itself as a consummately tasteful – so to speak – rendition of Hannibal that pays homage to Scott’s campy vision in particular. We greet the cannibal at a classical music concert, through a sweeping pan across the audience that settles into his aestheticist rapture, before shifting to a genteel soiree he is holding for the symphony board. This is Hannibal as Epicurean – “a true hog of Epicurus’ herd” – and sets the stage for a movie full of maximalist classical flourishes.

In the process, this domesticates Hannibal into a genre unto himself, marking the moment at which he has finally and fully crossed over into the mainstream as a resource to be mined by future directors as much as by future psychiatrists. Implicit in this transformation is an allegory of the way in which indie and genre cinema was itself domesticated by the mainstream Hollywood apparatus over the course of the 90s, turning Hannibal into a point of convergence, a reassurance that niche and mass audiences can be satisfied in the same vehicle. Where Manhunter was cryptic and oblique, Red Dragon is linear and expository. Likewise, where Silence and Hannibal progressively brought Hannibal out of the closet, here he is both more and less campy than ever before. He’s less campy in that he is shorn of much of his queerness, producing a family-friendly Hannibal, if you will, amenable to the blockbuster sprawl of middle America. This means that the film can’t hope to recapture his chemistry with Clarice, which was based on a tacit recognition of mutual queerness, and so he doesn’t ultimately have a great deal of juju with Graham, partly because Norton feels miscast, in the midst of what would turn out to be his last cluster of box office hits. Yet there is a different kind of campiness in the way in which Hannibal thus turns into a pastiche of himself – the campiness of fandom, since this is a Hannibal who is expressly designed to accommodate fans, and who seems to be his own biggest fan, enjoying himself immensely.

Among other things, this tends to flatten both Hannibal and the Tooth Fairy as serial killer types, again reflecting the way in which this particular cultural figure had waned by the early 2000s, in tandem with the postmodern space that had been seen as his natural dwelling ground. The terrorist, rather than the serial killer, was the nemesis of the post-September 11 era, and in many ways the Tooth Fairy feels more inclined to terror here – or is at least provided with the kinds of etiology and backstory that were associated with depictions of terrorism at the time, in stark contrast to the unknowable motivations that he took on in Mann’s vision. In a scene that feels utterly inimical to Manhunter, Ratner tracks through the nursing-home where the Tooth Fairy now lives, while providing us with a few brief sound bites that attribute all his psychopathology to a bad relationship with his grandmother. As if that weren’t expository enough, the Tooth Fairy also has a Red Dragon scrapbook, in which he explains his motivations and processes for posterity. Again, this inclines the film towards banality, while collapsing the Tooth Fairy and Hannibal’s modus operandi – unlike in the original film, Dollarhyde bites off Lounds’ tongue and consumes a William Blake print in a local museum. Yet this bathos also produces a different kind of campiness, transforming Hannibal into the emblem of a new serial killer consultancy class, a pathologized quarternary sector, as he provides Hannibal with one banality after another and demands hyperbolic remuneration.

As all these different comparisons suggest, the starkest difference between Manhunter and Red Dragon ultimately lies in the way that they approach narrative. Mann’s film is elliptical and oblique in the extreme, burying and obscuring plot details, often beneath two or three different layers of mediation, until they emerge more than unfold – indeed, serendipitous, contingent and mystical emergence is the whole point. By contrast, Red Dragon fills all that obliquity out with exposition and explanation, in an exercise in connective tissue that acknowledges the trilogy is done and that its main job is to fill in the blanks and envisage a post-classical era for the franchise. This focus on connective tissue often takes a literal form and produces quite different mise-en-scenes from Silence, where Hannibal simply appeared, from time to time, installed in one hyperspatial infrastructure after another, all of which were so many buttresses against his preternatural sense of space – against his gaze itself, which seemed capable of mapping ways out of even the most drastic of constraints. In its later and looser iteration of postmodernism, Red Dragon is more comfortable depicting Hannibal in transit, moving between these different panoptic spaces. Indeed, the most memorable scene with Graham is also the one that most expands the spatial mythology of the franchise, by giving us an insight into Hannibal’s exercise regimen. Chained to a central ceiling rung, he is permitted to walk round and round a circle drawn on the floor, whose perimeter becomes a more mobile and flexible version of the glass wall that Clarice is instructed never to approach.

This more expository focus on connective tissue also makes the final twist of the film resonate in a different way too – namely, that Dollarhyde worked at a film development laboratory, and had processed the home videos of his victims, meaning that he was already in their house before the crime was ever committed. Mann condensed Graham’s realisation of this fact to a single overdetermined moment but Ratner draws it out and really explains it. The result is both to make the twist less eerie in Red Dragon and eerier in Manhunter, as if this final plot point were the most emergent part of Mann’s entire vision, and now only visible from the tail end of postmodernism. For the paradox of the whole investigation turns out to be that the police team is examining physical points of ingress into the property of each victim when in fact the Tooth Fairy’s position at the primal moment of media dissemination – the development room where he meets Reba, his blind lover – ensures that he was always already acting in the virtual space that remains nascent and yet omniscient throughout Manhunter. Only by arriving at the closing moments of high postmodernism, Red Dragon suggests, could we comprehend how prescient that twist would turn out to be, how far its vision resonates.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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