Manhunter (1986) 4.33/5 (3)


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Rating: The Good – 84
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 119 mins
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen

Michael Mann’s most artistic project is a tour de force in writing, directing, and acting. It’s also very likely the definitive ‘serial killer’ film as it covers the phenomenon from all possible angles: from the killings themselves; the motives of the killer; the manhunt; and the effects it has on the agents tracking the killer. Each of these four angles could themselves be the sole premise for such a film and it’s to Mann’s credit that he not only manages to deal with each of them in a substantive manner but also skilfully weaves them together into a coherent story. The film moves at a steady pace and, while always conveying the urgency of the characters’ actions, it never feels rushed. The process of tracking the killer is shown to us in meticulous detail right down to the unspoken rivalry and/or contempt that the different branches of the law enforcement system have for each other.

Unlike the 2002 remake and even the novel itself, everything important in Manhunter is subtly hinted at so it’s left up to the audience to infer: Graham’s ability to track serial killers (is he half-way there himself?); Graham’s motives for choosing Lounds to lure the killer (did he or didn’t he?); Dolarhyde’s disgust/insecurity at his own physical appearance (and the root of his desire to kill). This is the true brilliance of Manhunter. Rather than force-feeding the audience, Mann recognises the characters in this film are driven by their ability or inability to deal with their own psyches. The subject matter is therefore subjective and should never be clear-cut enough so that it can be explained in black and white. Giving substance to this psychological approach is a visual and auditory style of pure artistry. Each shot reflects a sublime synthesis of production design, art direction, score, and cinematography as Mann soothes or energises the audience with a variety of rich grading, sharp angles, hard and soft lighting, and an overall magnificent use of space.

Manhunter is not just a technical triumph in direction and writing but also in acting. Each character is fully drawn out by its actor and they each relate to the different characters in consistently different ways. Peterson has never been better as the introspective lead investigator who innately empathises with these killers and so understands how their profound insecurities can lead to murder. The progression of his character throughout the film is believable and quite expertly conveys to us his desperate attempt to separate himself from ‘his man’. Farina is, as always, brilliant and while Scott Glenn plays him very differently but equally interestingly in Silence of the Lambs, the former’s Jack Crawford is the grittier and more hard-edged. With every glance and eye-movement, Farina brings to bear his first-hand knowledge of what it is to be a cop doing his job under time pressure.

Standing out from this excellent ensemble is of course Brian Cox as Lecktor. Though there is some merit to Anthony Hopkin’s unfortunately more renowned portrayal of the same character, his is undeniably a caricature of a serial killer and, therefore, not realistic at all. By definition, a serial killer must appear to be a very normal person – that’s how he manages to kill a ‘series’ of people as opposed to just one and then being caught! The problem with Hopkin’s “Lecter” is that he is quite clearly not fully there in the head and so even the rawest recruit from the FBI down to the Cub Scouts would be able to pick him out as the killer. Cox gives us something entirely different to Hopkin’s more cartoon-like performance. His Lecktor is smart, charming, and beneath the surface empty, devoid of sentiment and compassion. It’s to the actor’s and Mann’s credit that by the time his three scenes are done with, we have an implicit feeling as to what may be driving this Lecktor as well as an uncomfortable liking for him.

Above everything else, however, Manhunter is a testament to the artistry of Michael Mann in his pomp. Three sequences in particular demonstrate this with striking clarity: 1) the ‘walk-through’ of the tooth-fairy’s letter through the forensic process: not a quick, flashy cut in sight. Instead we have a patient almost soothing series of scenes which convey exactly what the different forensic specialists do (and there is not one indication that Jimmy Price and co. carry a gun, let alone go tracking down the killers themselves!). 2) Graham’s visit with Lecktor: a dream-like sequence wherein, through Mann’s sublime framing, staging, contrast, and composition (as well as the two actors’ abundant craft), the two play the best game of mental chess we’ve seen on film. 3) Dollarhyde encountering and falling in love with Reba (played by Joan Allen): Michael Mann at his best shows how the fantasy-driven psychosis of a serial killer can be shattered to a point that the real person beneath is briefly exposed. File under “masterclass”.

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