I came into RED DRAGON with pretty solid expectations; in preparation, I recently re-read Thomas Harris’s book (his best work, and easily the best of the Hannibal Lecter trilogy. See sidebar) although I probably should admit it’s been some ten years since I last saw MANHUNTER, the original adaptation of RED DRAGON. Both of the trailers for the film whetted my appetite further still. Yet, the previews and early reviews of the movie have been universally mixed, with a lot of criticism being squarely aimed at the shoulders of the generally excellent Edward Norton, who has reprised the role of Will Graham that many people felt was owned by William Peterson in MANHUNTER. Others think Lecter himself, now very much Anthony Hopkins’ own character (as opposed to what amounted to basically a cameo performance by Brian Cox in MANHUNTER), has become too camp; too much of a parody of himself.
In short, a lot of folks have had a hard time letting MANHUNTER go. Yes, it’s that old fanboy adage again; I liked the original film, so a remake can’t possibly be any good.
Producer Dino De Laurentiis, who also made MANHUNTER, stated that his intentions with the “reimagining” of RED DRAGON was to make the definitive adaptation of the original book. “Red Dragon is about the crime Hannibal Lecter committed and the way he was arrested,” Dino De Laurentiis told the Hollywood Reporter. “Hannibal Lecter escaped in Silence of the Lambs, and in Hannibal, you see him in a new situation in Florence [Italy]. The audience would like to know–once and forever–why, where and by whom Hannibal Lecter was arrested. This new version has parts of the book never seen before.”
A few scenes are added, some are omitted, and a couple of characters are merged together; but for the most part, RED DRAGON is very faithful to Harris’s original work.
For the layman moviegoer, or someone perhaps not all that familiar or interested in Harris’s seminal series of Lecter novels, RED DRAGON could initially prove to be a confusing experience. As the first of Harris’s three stories, DRAGON is set some time before the events seen in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The movie opens in 1980, and we find ourselves privy to the comfortable world of Hannibal Lecter, a respected forensic scientist and psychologist. We see Lecter enjoying a symphony, his focus very much on the inconsistent performance of a flutist. The man’s poor playing bothers Hannibal, and it’s of little surprise when in the next scene we learn that the poor fellow has “disappeared”. Lecter, younger, fitter, and sporting a hilarious 1980s ponytail, is at this point in his life very much an established member of societies stylistic elite, and he entertains the board of the symphony at his house. You can take a rough guess at the main course.
Later that night, Will Graham, a forensic specialist who works for the FBI, visits him at his home. Graham, married to Molly, with one son, Josh, has an uneasy reputation in the Bureau. He’s seen as something of a psychic, but in reality it’s his imagination that is his strength; Graham possesses the ability to imagine the thought processes and desires of other people. In particular, this ability lends itself to crawling into the minds of criminals.
Graham and Lecter have been working together on the profiling of a serial killer who continues to remain one step ahead. Graham is troubled; he feels like he has all the pieces, but he cannot see the entire puzzle ahead of him. The killer has been taking “trophies”; the liver, kidneys, tongue and other bodyparts of the victims that Graham initially assumes are keepsakes. But he’s refined his profile, and that of the killer’s modus operandi; the bodyparts aren’t trophies. They’re delicacies. Graham believes that the killer is eating them, that he’s cannibalistic. Lecter isn’t quite so enthusiastic about these revelations, and this surprises Graham; why hadn’t Lecter spotted this himself? And what’s this bizarre cookery book in Lecter’s library; the word sweetbreads written above a Latin recipe? Surely not?
Moments later, as Lecter surprises Graham, stabbing him with a long knife, the reasons for Hannibal’s detachment become all too clear. But Lecter underestimates the physical resources of the forensic specialist, and Graham shoots him down.
Graham is seriously wounded, and spends many months recovering from the attack. Lecter, meanwhile, is tried and imprisoned for his crimes, receiving nine consecutive life sentences. The Tattler, a National Inquirer-style tabloid that pays close attention to the more grisly details of the trial, heavily covers the case. And when Graham later spends additional recovery time in a mental institution, the Tattler gives the story a front-page spread.
Fast forward to the present day (at least, within the movie). Graham, who retired immediately after the Lecter incident, is now a boat mechanic living in Marathon, Florida, with Molly and Josh. Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), Graham’s old boss at the Bureau, makes a surprise visit, bringing news of a disturbing case, that of the Tooth Fairy. Graham is familiar with the story; the Tooth Fairy has killed two families, the Jacobi’s and the Leeds, a month apart, both times on or near a full moon. The circumstances of both killings are very similar: families of five; an attractive mother, ravaged and bitten by distinctive, jagged teeth; three children, two girls and a boy. All dead. In both cases, only the mother was abused after death. Hesitant to get involved at first, Graham is slowly turned around by Crawford, who pleads to Graham’s sense of responsibility; they have a chance to save other lives. It’s three weeks until the next full moon.
Graham visits the now empty home of the Leeds in Atlanta, and begins to put together the pieces, to form a profile of the killer. Little things bother him; the positioning of the bodies, trails of blood that don’t make sense, broken mirrors, pieces of glass missing. Outside, he discovers a strange, Oriental symbol carved into a tree; language experts at the Bureau would later identify this as a Mah-jong piece that represents the Red Dragon. He starts to see what the killer saw; his fantasies, his motive. But it isn’t enough. He needs help. He needs Hannibal Lecter.
Graham visits Lecter at the Chesapeake State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Lecter appears pleased to see Graham, taking pleasure in reminding him that their “last encounter ended rather messily.” Graham tries to shrug him off, but it’s apparent that the Doctor is getting to him. He asks Lecter for help. Lecter is also familiar with the case, but is hesitant to offer Graham any assistance, at least not without some kind of bargaining. What can Graham do for him? Graham reminds Lecter that bargaining can work both ways; would Lecter like to maintain his existing privileges, his access to books and texts, or would he rather lose them? Lecter maintains his disinterest in the case, but ultimately says he will look at the file. When Graham leaves, Lecter receives a call from his lawyer. But it’s all a ruse, and Lecter somehow manages to obtain Graham’s home address (I say somehow because it’s pretty ludicrous how he does it, both in a physical sense with the phone and due to the luck of getting a temp on the other end.)
Enter Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes). Dolarhyde works for Gateway Film Laboratory (at least he did in the book; in the film it was Urimax or something, but I missed the name. Still, the position was basically the same). A tall, muscular man, Dolarhyde is something of a mystery at his workplace. Bothered by what he perceives as a disfigurement following repair on his soft palette when he was a child, he rarely speaks. He sees himself as something of a freak; years of abuse at the hands of his grandmother taught him as much. He goes about his own business, and as such, is very much socially inadequate. For many years, Francis has lived his life in the shadows.
But these things are no longer of importance to him. What is important is what he is now; and what he is becoming. A copy of William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun hangs proudly in Dolarhyde’s home-built gym. Dolarhyde works out regularly, and religiously. His entire back is displayed with a tattoo of the Dragon itself. This is part of his becoming. Dolarhyde is becoming the Red Dragon.
Unintentionally, he has also become the Tooth Fairy, as christened by Freddy Lounds, chief reporter on the Tattler. This infuriates Dolarhyde; in his opinion, the name couldn’t have been any more wrong. He hates Lounds. And he feels little more for “gumshoe” Will Graham, who Lounds reveals is working on the murder investigation. But the news that Graham is seeking the assistance of Hannibal Lecter is of great interest to Dolarhyde. Lecter has long been an idol of his, an inspiration. He would very much like to speak with him.
Graham lectures to the FBI and local police about what they know of the killer’s profile, but it isn’t much. Both Graham and Crawford are somewhat at a dead end. They need more information. Lecter isn’t offering much assistance, at least directly. But the discovery of a letter concealed within a toilet roll in Lecter’s cell throws new light on a rapidly darkening case. The killer is corresponding with the good Doctor.
Further analysis on the note reveals that the “Tooth Fairy” expects a reply. But how, and where? Lecter had torn out parts of the note, making it almost impossible to determine where the correspondence would lie, but pieces of letters are visible, and they determine that the Tattler is the chosen medium. Most likely the personal columns. Somehow, Lecter already has a reply prepared, and the Bureau work frantically to decipher the code within the Fairy’s note so they will know exactly what to look for. Finally they crack it, and, late that night, the newly printed Tattler is taken straight off the press. Lecter’s reply is decoded, and Jack Crawford is called immediately with the shocking news; it reads, Graham home Marathon, Florida. Save yourself. Kill them all.
Meanwhile, Dolarhyde continues to plan ahead. He prepares for his next killing. Disappointed with video footage of his previous work, he decides he needs something a little extra-special; infrared film. Under the guise of donating the film to the local zoo, Dolarhyde picks up the film from Reba McClane, an employee at his plant. McClane is blind, but she’s not threatened by Dolarhyde’s gruff, acute manner. Rather, she warms to him, and against his better judgement, he warms to her.
This relationship becomes both a source of conflict and hope for Dolarhyde. He has never had a person treat him like McClane does. He is unsure how to progress with her; his responses are awkward and forced. She appears not to notice. Later, he has his first genuine shared sexual experience, further confusing him. Unintentionally, Reba is making him doubt himself, doubt the Dragon. He considers stopping. But is it too late? Can he control the Dragon?
The rest of the film then devotes itself to two pivotal relationships. That between Graham and Lecter, characters very opposite in their approach but obviously connected on many internal levels, and that of Francis Dolarhyde and Reba McClane, a blind woman who offers a brief glimmer of hope in Dolarhyde’s otherwise miserable and channelled existence. Somewhat opposed to what you might think, it is the latter that is the key to both the film and the book, and the movie very much rests on the performances of Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson, as opposed to the two star names. Both excel in their roles, and while not portraying the very physically threatening presence of Dolarhyde as in Harris’s book, Fiennes brings a steely calm and focus to the role that makes him dominate every scene in which he appears. Watson is also totally convincing as the blind Reba McClane, and the scene where she patiently prepares a slice of pecan pie for Dolarhyde, using a toothpick to guide her as she cuts the pie quite literally in total darkness, is a joy to watch, and very faithful to the book. Her world is very much one of preparation and consistency, and Dolarhyde’s involvement in her life, while pleasurable at first, throws all of this out of the window.
As I mentioned a lot of criticism has been thrown in the direction of both Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins. In my opinion this is wrong on both counts.
Profilers, let’s face it, are never going to be the most exciting people on the planet. If you have any interest whatsoever in this subject, read the books of John E. Douglas and Robert Ressler. In particular, read MINDHUNTER (Douglas) and WHOEVER FIGHTS MONSTERS (Ressler). Neither of these books are great reads per se, but they offer a disturbing insight into the work of the profiler, and of their mannerisms and personality. Neither author is anything near charismatic. Indeed, they are flat, lifeless and monotone in their delivery, because they have to be. This is their work. These people aren’t going to be animated, both out of respect but also because what kind of person is going to seek out, and more importantly, excel at this type of work? Not the guy who cracks jokes at the party, that’s for sure.
If you haven’t done so already, read RED DRAGON. Or read it again. Norton plays the role of Will Graham to type. Graham has some light-hearted moments with Molly, but for the most part he’s a brighter reflection of Dolarhyde; but still focused and cold. When he works his world is very black and white. He seeks out the grey, because that’s what excites him. What he needs. But grey is still grey, and Graham is never going to win any personality awards. He’s not Mohammed Ali. Norton plays him as in the book. While not an exciting or memorable performance, it’s more than adequate, because Graham as a person is neither exciting nor memorable.
Hopkins, meanwhile, takes it to the other end of the scale, and finds himself somewhere between the cynical, calculated genius in SILENCE and the man-about-town educated dandy he played in HANNIBAL. Sure, there are moments where he takes it a little too far; and the scene where he enjoyed dinner and a “show” in his cell didn’t sit well with me at all; but overall it’s the Lecter we all know and, dare I say it, love. And that is probably where it HAS gone wrong for Hopkins, although that’s not his fault. Much like Freddie Krueger, Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers, Lecter has gone from being a figure of terror to one we accept and even enjoy. But that’s a sign of his success, and he’s certainly a lot deeper than those other fellows (particularly the latter two.) Unlike the other two movies, this isn’t really his film. If anything, it belongs to Fiennes and Watson.
Harvey Keitel somewhat goes through the motions as Jack Crawford, but he’s always good value, and to be fair doesn’t have too much to do. (His best line being a sickened “Christ!” when he is reading the nauseating content of Lecter’s reply to Dolarhyde.) Phillip Seymour Hoffman was adequate as Freddy Lounds. Mary-Louise Parker looked distracted throughout the movie. The rare moments of humour in the film inevitably came from Anthony Heald’s Dr. Frederick Chiltern.
Is it better than the book? I would say no, predominately because like all book-to-movie adaptations the film falls short in one important aspect; what the characters are thinking. RED DRAGON was a book that predominately focused on thought, particularly that of the two main characters; Graham and Dolarhyde. Graham’s thought process was the bulk of the novel; like Will himself, we got to step inside the mind of the serial killer, and had a little glimpse of the horror therein and sympathised with Graham as he battled his own inner demons. Dolarhyde, too, faced an internal struggle; one that saw him question his own “becoming” as he revisited his world through the “eyes” of Reba McLane. Her kindness and whimsical naivety touched him; would he perhaps have stopped killing completely if Graham had never made the connection with the video compilations of the families and Dolarhyde’s workplace? One would assume perhaps not, but there clearly was some internal conflict in Dolarhyde as he fought to comprehend how the innocent, unassuming power of Reba McClane could compete with that of the Dragon.
The movie was ten minutes over two hours, but felt short to me, and a little rushed in parts. The scenes where we saw Graham at work, saw his mind absorb the information around him and step into the eyes of the killer, were OK but not great. I feel both he as a character and Norton as an actor needed more time to bring depth and realism to this sequence of events.
The ending was pretty weak; Graham and family sailing off into the sunset was very Hollywood and quite unacceptable. I would think the more likely outcome would be Molly and Graham separating, particularly after what he said to Josh (I know he HAD to do that, but that’s tough for a young kid to get through, especially after having a knife in his face.)
I did, however, love the final scene, which offers a great nod to SILENCE. Speaking of which, it always bugged me that Lecter just “forgot” about Graham. Surely he would have been one of the first people he would have gone after when he broke out of Chesapeake?
There was a scene in the trailer for RED DRAGON that was omitted from the movie. In the trailer we see Dolarhyde coming to Graham’s house. Josh answers the door, and Dolarhyde introduces himself as “a friend of your father.” This is clearly from the end of the film, and I have no idea why they took it out. Maybe to add tension. It’s a good scene and I hope that this, and others like it, turn up in the deleted scenes segment of the DVD.
The film was surprisingly lacking in gore but did have one or two grisly scenes, but Freddy Lounds demise was notably trimmed from the source material, as was the descriptions of the deaths of the families.
Overall, not a classic by any means, but a solid effort, with nice tension and pace, that fits snugly in the number two spot between HANNIBAL and SILENCE in the roster. (SILENCE being easily the best of the three movies.)