Penetrate the dream, and you’ll understand the nightmare. Early in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, retired F.B.I. profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) suggests as much during a tense visit to the maximum-security prison cell of infamous flesh-eater, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). The two men share a traumatic cat-and-mouse history, and Graham enters this antiseptic lion’s den to regain a “scent” for Lecktor’s special brand of madness so he can catch a ruthless killer. But Lecktor’s mind games cut too deep, gutting Graham’s still-healing psyche one carefully modulated word at a time. Even the pressing timeline of a terrifying serial murder case isn’t enough to keep Graham from sprinting out of the fortified mental hospital into the fresh open air, his heavy breathing amplified by classic Mann-style synthesizer tones. Insanity like this is infectious, and Graham knows it.
Released theatrically on August 15, 1986, Manhunter signifies two important beginnings: the cinematic introduction of America’s favorite cannibal, some five years before Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, and the flowering of director Michael Mann’s ice-cold specialist auteurism, a stylistic approach he initiated with 1981’s Thief and has perfected in the decades since. Because Manhunter examines Lecktor’s mania within the closed off boundaries of Mann’s tight professional universe, the character’s impact lies in the subtle tweaks of Brian Cox’s marvelously evil performance, a smoldering combination of thinly veiled smiles and slicked back charm that is wonderfully opposed to Anthony Hopkins’s lip-smacking showboat turn. In Cox’s hands, Lecktor treats serial killing as a calling, respecting the nuance and detail of his work just as Will and his F.B.I. colleagues do with their own investigation. A few brief but crucial scenes show how Lecktor manipulates the entire narrative of Manhunter by subverting Will’s trust in institutional procedure. Rules and regulations can’t contain Lecktor’s flair for the evilly dramatic, controlling each character’s fate like a demented cat pawing at its helpless prey. Only Mann’s blue-moon color schemes and sporadically dynamic slow-motion shots evoke a world apart from Lecktor’s maniacal omniscience.
Adapted from Thomas Harris’ hit novel Red Dragon, Manhunter is a neon-hued chess match between cops and killers “making moves,” individuals collectively living on the razor’s edge. The film brilliantly fixates on many forms of transformation—mental, emotional, or professional—that effect Mann’s trio of big-game hunters. Graham, Lecktor, and Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), the “Tooth Fairy” killer murdering whole families by the light of the lunar cycle, form a triangle of warring perspectives destined to overlap. Each lives and breathes in striking fantasy worlds of their own making, camouflaging themselves in professional study as surface cover. Dollarhyde’s a photo expert, Lecktor a masterful psychologist, while Graham is the last resort in criminal profiling. These workman-like obsessions invariably influence each man’s subjective dreamscape, aligning them with future Mann anti-heroes to come. The viewer only receives glimpses into their psychological grey areas, making Manhunter all the more hypnotic and ambiguous.
When fantasy and reality do actually collide on screen, it’s because the multi-layered sound design and visual fragmentation of Manhunter overwhelms the more linear police procedural narrative. In the film’s most surreal sequence, streaming light from a dead victim’s eyes and mouth not only represents the important motif of mirrors, but the glassy reflections of evil influencing Graham’s every move. In order to undo this debilitating pattern, Graham’s increasingly fragile point-of-view must bear witness to Dollarhyde’s murderous dreams involving the Red Dragon, a mythological Chinese legend about power and desire. This aspect is best seen when Graham walks through one of the murdered family’s houses, meticulously charting the moment-to-moment actions of the killer. Details are paramount to Graham’s analysis, making assumptions about the victim’s motivations in relation to Dollarhyde’s cunning advances. “Even with his throat cut, Leeds tried to fight because the intruder was moving to the children’s rooms.” Graham’s subjective observations take on a tense cinematic quality, as if he is tapping into Dollarhyde’s own personal memory bank of fetishistic images and scenarios no one else would dare view. Later, it’s not surprising Graham finds out Dollarhyde picks victims based on their own home movies, personalizing the murderous experience long before actually committing the crimes.
Dollarhyde’s elaborate killings, referenced in graphic detail by medical examiner reports and the occasional crime scene photo, disturbingly echo the act of filmmaking itself. In order to feel power and desire over his victims, Dollarhyde stages the bodies in various positions, putting shards of glass over their eyes so he can see himself “become” the all powerful Red Dragon. Mann’s angular compositions, glistening mise-en-scene, deafening pop music montages, and sudden bursts of violence are all indicators of the same extreme desire: to witness one’s cinematic fantasy come to life. In every carefully constructed frame, Mann’s fluid vision of perception and reality roots the viewer’s own building sense of panic, seeping into our consciousness in much the way Graham’s does with Dollarhyde’s. Each cognitive relationship is hauntingly organic, not to mention deeply personal.
Mann’s sudden introduction of a blind woman named Reba (Joan Allen) late in the film complicates Dollarhyde’s evil during the character’s final waking moments, and the narrative decision works for the most part. The pair’s sudden first date, including an evocative petting session with a tiger, is unforgettably immersive and symbolic of Dollarhyde’s skewed version of the real world. But this is only a momentary narrative diversion from Manhunter’s killer core. Fulfilling the promise of its title, Manhunter finally crashes Lecktor’s menacing influence, Dollarhyde’s titanic frame, and Graham’s seething anger together in a short but stunning last second shootout. Here, Mann’s masterpiece crystallizes its pristine examination of Dollarhyde’s urge to become a self-inscribed deity. Lecktor’s warning a few scenes earlier takes on new resonance: “If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.” That Graham perfectly understands his tormentor’s delusional words becomes Manhunter’s most lasting and disturbing contribution to the horror genre. Some men may be born evil, but according to Manhunter, their dragon’s breath can seamlessly jump hosts and infect innocent minds like the Devil’s own airborne virus. It’s what nightmares are made of, so sleep tight.
Glenn Heath Jr. lives in San Diego, CA. He writes for Not Coming to a Theater Near You, GreenCine and In Review Online.