*. There have been a lot of Hannibal Lecter movies. In order of their release they are: Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon, and this one. Then the character was turned into a short-lived television series. Quite a surprising run, when you think about it.
*. I’m on the record as saying I don’t think any of Thomas Harris’s Lecter books are very good. In fact, they’re trash. But Silence of the Lambs rose so far above its base origins, and so far eclipsed Manhunter, that it deserves to be regarded as the real beginning of the franchise anyway.
*. So much for the background to this absolutely worthless, repulsive piece of garbage.
*. Apparently Harris wasn’t keen on returning to Hannibal, but felt pressured by De Laurentiis (who threatened to have someone else write a prequel). So we have a novel and screenplay coming to us courtesy of a tired and somewhat reluctant hack. That’s getting off to a bad start.
*. According to the DVD commentary Harris insisted on writing the screenplay this time out. I can’t imagine why. Whatever the reason, the results are terrible. The structure is awkward as hell (a twenty-minute prologue?) and the dialogue is awesomely bad. Poor Gong Li, a Chinese actress again pressed into playing a Japanese woman (the all-purpose Asian), gets saddled with the worst of it. “Be gentle, Hannibal. And be brave. Like your father.” Or “You smell of smoke and blood” (I guess it must have really gotten into his clothes). Special note, however, has to also be taken of Grutas telling Lady Murasaki that he knows her “asshole will look just like a violet.” Am I missing something? What does that even mean?
*. The next ingredient was finding a director, which involved a truly bizarre decision. Peter Webber came to the project from Girl with a Pearl Earring, a well-received film that would not have first made me think of the Hannibal Lecter franchise. Or made me think of Hannibal at all.
*. Production designer Allan Starski says the plan was to mix action-horror with art house, which might have seemed like a good idea but turned out not to work. This movie is expensively produced but far less stylish than any of the other Hannibal films (including the post-disco era Manhunter). For that matter, it’s less stylish than the TV series Hannibal too. There’s a difference between a film that looks expensive and one that looks great. The Silence of the Lambs had some of the best production design I’ve ever seen and it was done on a shoestring.
*. So we have a lousy script and a director who doesn’t seem to have any affinity for the material at all. Could things get worse? They could.
*. For the record, I don’t mind a bit that Gaspard Ulliel doesn’t look, or sound, even remotely like someone who is going to grow up to be Anthony Hopkins in another forty years (though according to producer Martha de Laurentiis finding a match was “paramount” in casting and they thought they’d got it with Ulliel). That’s fine. What I do mind is that he’s so damn hard to look at. And yes, I know he’s a professional model. Maybe that’s the problem. What’s with that sneer? Is that his Blue Steel? Where is his character’s urbanity and charm? This Hannibal is just a nasty prig.
*. On the commentary Webber remarks how people were somewhat confused as to who the gang of baddies were and what they were all about. I shared that confusion. They are native Lithuanian . . . mercenaries? Partisans? Bandits? Apparently the correct historical label is Hilfswilliger, or “Hiwi” for short. This mean they were German volunteers, though they seem like total freelancers to me.
*. Later we’re told they’re war criminals (“cannibalistic Nazis” in the words of Webber on the commentary, though unlike the mature Hannibal none of them are cannibals by choice). It’s also said that they were judged at Nuremberg, from whence they “walked free.” I can’t understand why any of these hoods would have been at Nuremberg, but I guess this reference was just thrown in as a way of identifying them as Nazis.
*. They aren’t Nazis, but this film is a good example of how the history of the Second World War has come to be rewritten in popular culture (especially film). What I mean is that WW2 has been translated into a global conflict whose main, perhaps only, larger meaning was a struggle against the forces of anti-Semitism. This it certainly was not, but the Holocaust has since been enshrined as the central generative fact of postwar Europe and Hannibal Rising is just one example of what it generated.
*. Quentin Tarantino got a lot of press on the release of Inglourious Basterds, particularly in an article about that film appearing in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg titled “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger,” for being a type of the Jewish revenge fantasy. That label, as a term in film criticism, goes back to Pauline Kael’s review of Marathon Man, and can be interpreted more broadly as referring to films about Jews taking a violent revenge on Nazis. Taken to a brutal extreme it becomes what Eli Roth, quoted in Goldberg’s essay, calls “kosher porn” (a riff on “torture porn,” one assumes).
*. Hannibal Rising is kosher porn. And there’s nothing wrong with such fantasies in a context where they apply — as in Marathon Man or Inglourious Basterds. Here, however, it seems an odd fit. I don’t think Lecter is Jewish. And yet anti-Semitic persecution is a theme that’s returned to again and again in the film, with material and information that is totally extraneous to the plot. A Jewish man is murdered at the Lecter castle in a bit of ethnic cleansing at the beginning of the film, the gang of Hiwis are sent to Nuremberg, and we see a French collaborator being executed after confessing to shipping Jewish children to Auschwitz. The lair of the bad guys looks, improbably, a little like the Eagle’s Nest. Hell, even the French butcher is fair game because he’s a racist and, as we later find out, a Vichy collaborator as well (he also “shipped Jews from Marseilles”). Nazi: check. Off with his head!
*. Are Nazis the only historical villains, at least from this period, that Hollywood can even imagine any more? It’s one thing to say all Nazis were bad guys, but to say that all bad guys must be Nazis seems to me to be taking things too far.
*. The upshot of all of this is that Hannibal is made over into yet another Jewish avenger. Aside from the shoehorning problem (a Jewish avenger movie without any Nazis, or Jews), this also has the effect of making him into even more of a hero. Indeed, pretty much any trace of Hannibal as a great screen villain (much less a monster) has disappeared. Even as a child Hannibal upsets the “normal human pecking order” in a noble way by taking on the school bullies. And of course later we are meant to cheer as he dispenses rough justice on the gang of pseudo-Nazi trash, because even if he isn’t a survivor of the Holocaust his experience was sort of, kind of, similar. He lost his family too, you see.
*. What the hell are a bunch of Lithuanian grunts doing as Mafiosi in France after the war anyway? That seems more than a bit unlikely.
*. In any event, the resulting carnage plays out like a tony version of I Spit on Your Grave. The only interest generated is in seeing how Hannibal is going to kill his victims, and how much torture they’ll have to endure before finally being finished off. Torture porn is at least meant to be disturbing: we aren’t supposed to approve of people being dismembered and butchered. But here we’re asked to enjoy it, to identify with Hannibal and not his victims, who are all subhuman.
*. I like Dominic West, but what is he doing in this film? Inspector Popil doesn’t serve any function. He’s a composite of several characters in the book that doesn’t add up to one good part.
*. In general, directors really know their movies. So what does Webber mean when he compares two scenes here (the rope decapitation and the fight in the kitchen) to a Sergio Leone Western? The presence of a noose? The use a lot of close-ups? I don’t see any connection at all. I’m also baffled by his claiming that the direct overhead shot in the forest is a steal from the scene where the scientists discover the spaceship in the ice in Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World. I would have never thought of that, and even with him pointing it out I still don’t see it.
*. My DVD box has a pull quote on the front from Pete Hammond of Maxim magazine calling Hannibal Rising “an absolute shocker in every way imaginable.” This surprised me so much (is it shocking in any imaginable way?) that I went looking for the full review online to see if it made more sense in context.
*. I couldn’t find the review but I did find a bunch of stuff on Hammond, who apparently had quite a reputation as a “blurb whore” in the industry, often being asked for advance praise to run in advertising spots. He also set off a bit of controversy with regard to another line from his review for this movie when what he said was changed to be more “family friendly” for a television ad (“terrifying” was switched to “electrifying”). According to reports, The Weinstein Company worked together with Hammond on the altered quote. According to the same reports this is actually a common practice, and some studios even suggest exact quotes to reviewers before they see the movie.
*. So I guess you have to take some of those blurbs with a very generous dose of salt indeed. Some time after this, Hammond was let go by Maxim. I can’t say I blame him that much for all the controversy. This was his job. He says his “reviews” were limited to 30 words anyway, and had to be positive as per editorial guidelines. So basically he was being asked to write blurbs.
*. But back to the movie. Why is it so very bad? This may be the biggest problem: Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs was named by AFI as the number one film villain of all time and Hopkins went on to win an Academy Award despite only appearing on screen for about fifteen minutes. Great villains don’t need a lot of screen time, and indeed I think an argument could be made that they shouldn’t be on screen very much.
*. The other Hannibal movies rightly focused on Clarice Starling and Will Graham (which was presumably the role Popil was going to have here, but as noted he is made superfluous). This is the first film in the franchise to jettison the formula and make Hannibal the hero and central character. Indeed he’s in almost every scene.
*. In hindsight we can see this was a mistake. Peak Hannibal had already been crossed and this was a film too far. Much too far. Pray this is the end.