Red Dragon (2002)

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*. This is what I was expecting: A slight re-working of Thomas Harris’s mediocre thriller that would give the audience more Hannibal/Anthony Hopkins. A more expensive production than Michael Mann’s Manhunter (based on the same source), combined with a look mostly borrowed from The Silence of the Lambs.
*. I got what I expected.
*. A thought experiment: If you hadn’t already seen The Silence of the Lambs, what would you have thought of this movie? Would you have been just as impressed by his performance if this had been your first taste of Hopkins as Hannibal? Your first visit to that dungeon set? Or would you have cared?
*. Manhunter suffered from an overripe ’80 vibe, but at least it came by it honestly. It was a movie made in the ’80s based on a novel written and set in the ’80s. This movie really has nothing of that low, dishonest decade about it aside from the big cars and the absence of cellphones.
*. From the almost comically intense William Petersen to the almost comically laid back Edward Norton. I’m not sure who I like least. Clarice! Where are you? Waiting in the wings.

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*. According to Brett Ratner’s DVD commentary, Philip Seymour Hoffman originally wanted to play Dolarhyde. Huh? Hoffman was a fine actor, but really, he was a mess physically. I can’t imagine the training regime he would have had to undergo to even begin to look credible in the part. As it is, I think Ralph Fiennes barely passes muscle muster.
*. I can’t remember the last time I saw an actor as disinterested in their role as Mary-Louise Parker appears to be playing Molly. Ted Tally: “she’s not really given much to work with by the script.” True (and he should know), but on a couple of occasions she seems to be falling asleep.
*. Lecter is younger here, yet appears more lizard-like, and it looks like he’s put on weight. It’s tough to do the same role as a prequel more than ten years after the original.
*. Shouldn’t Dolarhyde’s tattoo have some colour in it? It is supposed to be a red dragon.

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*. Crawford gives Dolarhyde’s book to Graham because . . . ? That really felt like a forced bit of plot work. What Crawford tells Graham makes no sense at all. Why would Graham want to take the “first look” at it? He’s retired and Dolarhyde is (presumably) dead. Is it a trophy?
*. The same basic problems faced by Manhunter are here as well. Chief among these is the way the character of Dolarhyde is fractured between an over-the-top psychopath and a sympathetic victim with real feelings. This is just not believable. His disfigurement is so mild as to be almost unnoticeable, and his personality seems perfectly functional. He has no trouble attracting Reba, who seems an astute judge of character and not at all a desperate woman.
*. It’s no response to this to say that psychopaths are great at faking being normal. They are, but the point is Dolarhyde isn’t faking it. He’s not acting normal in order to fool anyone.
*. Maybe it comes down to the eyes. Both Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes have such sad eyes. But I don’t much care for an emotionally vulnerable killer with sad eyes. I’d rather see evidence of something scary or crazy or dangerous behind them. Do I just want a bogeyman? Maybe. But serial killers really aren’t that complicated.
*. The ending, with the bad guy who isn’t really dead yet, has become such a cliché that it can’t be finessed or made interesting in any way. Dolarhyde’s final appearance is something we are waiting for. On balance, I think Manhunter had the right idea in wrapping things up at his house. As Ratner puts it on the commentary, “the minute the audience is ahead of you, they’re sleeping.” I was sleeping.
*. Manhunter also made the right decision in scrapping Dolarhyde’s trip to the Brooklyn Museum. At least I think so. But Ratner says he found it “mindblowing” that Mann left that part out. In my opinion none of that material adds anything to the story. Indeed it only makes me wonder what it is Dolarhyde thinks he’s doing. He says later that he was protecting Reba, but how? By killing the Dragon and eating it? Assuming its power? Ratner and Tally say they wanted to leave it ambiguous, to let you read it either way. I don’t think they knew.
*. As in Manhunter we have to put up with the awkwardness of Will Graham talking to himself. A lot. Tally says he’s had actors refuse to do this because they find it so “stagey and theatrical and false,” but a screenplay has a hard time showing the sequence of a character’s thinking unless the actor voices his thoughts out loud. Still, there are limits to how much of this an audience can take.

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*. Ted Tally says the relationship between Dolarhyde and Reba was the heart of the movie. I think this was another mistake, but then I’m not sure Harris’s novel had a heart to begin with. I don’t find the scenes with Reba and Dolarhyde very interesting, and the whole idea of him being disfigured and her being blind is clichéd.
*. No, I don’t much care for this one. Demme was able to make something great out of a trashy, sensational novel by embracing those very qualities and running with them. By the time this film was made the trash had become a franchise, and it doesn’t look like anyone was having fun any more.

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