Sure, it’s disturbing when Hannibal Lecter feeds someone a piece of his own brain. But even more disgusting is that the character’s sheer evil has been distilled for the sake of selling him as America’s favorite cannibal.
The Silence of the Lambs was an unsettling, steely thriller. When Anthony Hopkins first flashed that malevolent smile, it terrified us because we had no idea of the madness lurking in Lecter’s mind. At that same smile, we now laugh, poised to expect some glib, self-referential one-liner.
Red Dragon is the second film version of novelist Thomas Harris’ introduction to Lecter; the first was 1986’s Manhunter directed by Michael Mann. There are some minor improvements in this telling of the tale – namely offering an emotional investment in the film’s mentally unstable heavy (Ralph Fiennes). But Hopkins ruins nearly every scene he’s in, which is about five too many. Because this is the second time he’s pimped out his Oscar-winning meal ticket for a hefty paycheck, maybe Hopkins should be forced to give his statuette back.
As the film opens, he resembles a drag queen past his prime, with a ridiculous ponytail and makeup-caked face (it’s to make him look younger). Regardless, the opening sequence is promising – in a violent confrontation, we see Lecter’s capture at the hands of FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton). Hopkins recites some deliciously evil dialogue, and director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) stages the scene with unexpected suspenseful prowess.
The film then flashes several years forward, a traumatized Graham having retired from FBI work. His cohorts are baffled, though, by two mass murders committed by a serial killer known as The Tooth Fairy. Graham’s work as a consultant on the case leads to deeper involvement and uneasy visits with an imprisoned Lecter, whose help Graham seeks with this current investigation.
Juxtaposed with this story is that of Francis Dolarhyde (Fiennes), who is The Tooth Fairy. Physically and mentally, Dolarhyde is a disfigured man. By manifesting his rage in murder, he feels he is transforming into a mythical figure called the Red Dragon. But perhaps the unexpected affections of Reba, a kindly, blind co-worker (Emily Watson), will divert him from his path of self-destruction.
Given the top-shelf cast – which also includes standout character actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Harvey Keitel – it’s disappointing to see so many people going through the motions. Norton is passable, but brings little believable intensity to Graham’s supposedly tortured character. Meanwhile, Keitel and Hoffman are mostly wasted.
Fiennes breaks that morass, though, with Dolarhyde, a villain who is almost as sympathetic as he is terrifying. Fiennes is perfectly cast in the role, bringing palpable sadness and desperation to Dolarhyde while giving him a bloodcurdling tone of voice. Dolarhyde’s relationship with Reba also provides numerous shining moments for Watson, and allows Ratner to generate a genuinely unsettling combination of sexual tension and the threat of violence.
In these moments, the director is confidently putting his own stamp on the franchise. In all others, he’s slavishly adhering to its wink-wink demands. The deja-vu references to characters from Silence, along with the unnecessary comic relief from Hopkins, grow progressively embarrassing. And when Ratner cuts away from a tremendously intense moment with Dolarhyde – solely to show Lecter scare a jailhouse cook – it is a completely unforgivable betrayal of Red Dragon’s only interesting elements.
Twelve years ago, Lecter was deranged, but as a franchise-friendly antihero, he’s just defanged, and Red Dragon’s all-too-frequent focus on him ultimately suffers for it.