Don’t Bite My Style

Max Sparber

As more evidence that there just ain’t no justice in this world, who do we find at the helm of the latest incarnation of Thomas Harris’s trilogy of books detailing the awful appetite of Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter? None other than Brett Ratner, a director whose previous efforts have been notable almost exclusively for the execrable Rush Hour series. Ratner is a director with no discernable directorial style and no storytelling skills; but having been the big boss of Rush Hour 2, a film that grossed over $67 million on its opening weekend, he has been handed the reins of one of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchise thrillers. In some ways, this is like asking your dog to drive your Porsche to the carwash because he has shown himself to be so skilled at licking his own genitalia.

Ratner has gamely climbed into the driver’s seat, though, and the resulting film is competent, and almost slavish in its devotion to both Harris’s original novel and director Jonathan Demme’s moody, artful Silence of the Lambs. Lecter is back, played, once again, by Anthony Hopkins, and the film, referred to as a “prequel” (one of the film industries’ most awkward neologisms), ends at the exact moment before Silence begins.

But this is a film without flair. Despite repeated claims by Hopkins that he wanted to make Lecter seem mad and dangerous in this film, as lensed by Ratner he sulks around in his glass-fronted cell, glaring at his newest FBI nemesis, Will Graham, played by Edward Norton. With his boyish features and mellow line-readings, Norton seems neither old enough nor pained enough for a role that requires him to play an emotionally scarred forensics investigator with the uncomfortable ability to empathize with mass murderers. Red Dragon has already been made once before, in 1986 as a film called Manhunter, which has developed a cult audience for its mixture of sinister atmospherics – provided by director Michael Mann, fresh off of Miami Vice – and its tense look at the forensic process. It is interesting that the actor who played Graham in this earlier version, William Peterson, was 33 when the film was released, the same age Norton is now. And yet Peterson’s Will Graham seemed at least a decade older: He pursued his mass murderer with a dogged, weary insistence. By comparison, Norton seems to be chasing his quarry with a lighthearted determination: He is jokey, and often charming, but has about the gravity of a kitten pawing at string.

The novel Red Dragon predates Silence of the Lambs, and thanks to Ratner’s devotion, this fact is eminently noticeable. Indeed, Silence has less the feel of a sequel than a rewrite, correcting ungainly elements in the earlier novel. Where there was Will Graham in Red Dragon, a supremely skilled investigator who captured Lecter, there is Clarice Starling in Silence, an inexperienced cadet, easily manipulated by Lecter. In both stories, Lecter is enlisted to aid in the capture of a serial killer. In Silence, Harris gave us a monster, in the form of Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, who kept women in a pit before murdering them, and then stitched their carcasses together to make for himself a suit of human flesh. Red Dragon‘s killer, in the meanwhile, is a tattooed photo geek with a penchant for the paintings of William Blake and an unfortunate habit of chewing on his victims. In Ratner’s adaptation, this orally fixated murderer, nicknamed Tooth Fairy, is played by British actor Ralph Fiennes. This handsome, smallish actor rarely conveys much menace – he spends most of the film hurrying about a decrepit mansion in his birthday suit, looking vaguely distressed. This is behavior I associate more with petulant male models than serial killers. His character is given a single, incessantly discussed flaw to his otherwise great physical beauty: A cleft-palette scar, which hardly seems like enough reason to smash every available mirror, as Fiennes does. Joaquin Phoenix has the exact same scar, and I would wager he spends more time preening in mirrors than destroying them.

We can blame Ratner for this. Fiennes is an actor capable of playing monsters – one need only to look to his sleepy-eyed, sadistic concentration camp commander in Schindler’s List. But Ratner is a director who is incapable of conveying nuances of mood; when Fiennes is at his most vicious, such as when he kidnaps a tabloid reporter responsible for a series of unflattering stories about him, he seems, at worst, vaguely constipated, even when he lunges at the terrified writer, teeth bared.

Ratner’s failings are most evident in his presentation of Lecter, however. We return repeatedly to Lecter in his cell, and it is the exact cell from Silence, a carefully kept cubicle filled with sketches and books, sealed behind a thick layer of glass, buried in the basement of a catacomb-like mental hospital. But when Will Graham first meets Lecter here, Ratner places him on a tiny plastic chair, and the cell itself seems miniscule, better suited to a hamster than a man. Lecter lounges inside it, petulantly, and he and his nemesis exchange light banter. Compared to the vision of an earthbound hell offered by Jonathan Demme in the opening scenes of Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon has the subdued atmosphere of a dull chess game between two mildly unfriendly opponents. When Norton later exits the room and removes his jacket, his shirt is soaked with sweat, the only evidence given that when facing Hannibal Lecter, cinema’s most popular psychotic, he felt afraid. And why should he? We didn’t.

Red Dragon, Rated R. Directed by Brett Ratner. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes. Now playing at area theaters.