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Manhunter (1986)   2 comments


A serial killer strikes during the full moon and kills entire families in their beds. When local police come up empty, they call the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, Jack Crawford (the always awesome Dennis Farina) for help.

See? I told you I was awesome.

Crawford, in turn calls his best profiler, Will Graham (William Petersen). Graham has a knack for getting into murderers’ heads and seeing horrific crimes through their eyes. This ability has taken a toll on his psyche however and Crawford finds him at his beach house recovering from a nervous breakdown. Crawford talks Graham into working the case and soon he’s back in the mind of another maniac.

Manhunter starts with a well worn movie plot. The burned out cop comes back to work on a big case and conquers his own demons. In the hands of another director, Manhunter could easily resemble a made-for-TV movie doomed for the USA network between a commercial-heavy showing of Top Gun and a rerun of Psych. What elevates this film is the stylish direction of Michael Mann (Thief, Heat) and the top drawer performances by the film’s cast.

Petersen, who made To Live and Die in LA with William Friedkin the year before, is at the top of his game as the world weary Graham. His stillness and intensity are perfect for this film, especially when he’s walking the crime scenes, reliving the murders. He describes in detail the actions and thoughts of the killer. It’s his empathy which allows Graham to discover the first solid lead in the search for the killer dubbed the Tooth Fairy by police. After making discoveries he can’t explain, Graham looks to serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), the man who nearly killed him a few months before, for information on the Tooth Fairy. The doctor toys with Graham and they share the best dialogue in the film.


Graham:”I thought you might enjoy the challenge. Find out if you’re smarter than the person I’m looking for.”
Lecktor: “Then, by implication, you think you’re smarter than I am, since it was you who caught me.”
Graham: “No. I know I’m not smarter than you.”
Lecktor: “Then how did you catch me?”
Graham: “You had…disadvantages.”
Lecktor: “What disadvantages?”
Graham: “You’re insane.”

Point taken.

I have to talk a bit about Brian Cox here. His Lecktor has all the menace of the Hopkins version without the theatrics. Don’t get me wrong. I like Silence of the Lambs a lot and Hopkins does a terrific job in his role. Brian Cox took a different, subtler approach though and it seems a lot more likely that he could hide in plain sight than Hopkins could.

After the conversation with Graham piques Lecktor’s interest, he uses his technical acumen and charm to hotwire a telephone and cajole Graham’s home address out of an unwitting receptionist. After a terrific forensic investigation sequence featuring talented character actor Bill Smitrovich, Crawford and Graham discover that the Tooth Fairy has reached out to Dr. Lecktor, putting Graham’s family at risk. Graham and Crawford make a move designed to bring the Tooth Fairy out into the open. The shocking scenes that follow give us our first glimpse of the killer. When his plot backfires, Graham must reexamine the crime scenes and walk with the killer again.

While Graham crawls inside the head of the Tooth Fairy, we see our madman at his job. Withdrawn and desperately lonely, the killer (Tom Noonan) presents us with a problem. We know about his brutal crimes and yet we pity his awkwardness and even cheer for him when he makes a connection with his blind co-worker, Reba (Joan Allen).

I wish I were a tiger.

We care about him. We care because Tom Noonan delivers a nuanced and frightening performance. We care because Thomas Harris and Michael Mann wrote a compelling screenplay. We care because director Michael Mann combines the straightforwardness of a police procedural with the artiness of a 1980s music video and the drama of grand opera. A haunting soundtrack by Michel Rubini, The Reds, and The Prime Movers, along with stellar use of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida provides the setting for a fascinating cerebral thriller. Kim Greist, as Graham’s loving, yet fearful wife, and Stephen Lang, as a ruthless tabloid reporter, show great range, but it’s Petersen who really shines. After watching Manhunter and To Live and Die in LA, I wonder why he didn’t get more leads or at least a few juicy character roles. Manhunter depicts the analysis and pursuit of a serial killer. If it stopped there it would be a satisfying watch. It doesn’t.


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