Friday, February 9, 2001

Review: Hannibal (2001)

127 min.
R (for occasional graphic violence, brief nudity, profanity)

by Scott Mendelson

Well, it’s official: Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive has completely desensitized me to any amount of gore any R-rated American horror flick can offer. Imported from New Zealand in 1993, Jackson’s zombie-filled horror-comedy classic contains perhaps more gore, blood, and guts than any movie ever made. When you’ve see a movie that climaxes with at least 40 minutes of zombies being graphically and creatively beheaded, getting their rib cages ripped out, being skinned, disemboweled, dismembered, and all other matters of jolly good fun, a throat slitting, a disembowelment, and a couple shots of man-eating boars eating men (among other bits) just doesn’t do it for ya.

This lack of grimy going-ons wouldn’t be a problem if Hannibal did not put so much stock in attempting to shock and repulse the audience with flashy gore. Alas, where Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs (which isn’t nearly as violent or gory as you might remember it being) were character-driven suspense pieces where the violence was grimly realistic and the shocks came from what you did not see, Hannibal is basically a gross-out pic that aims merely to gross you out with over-the-top gore set-pieces. While Thomas Harris, author of the novels from which these films are based, used this operatic pop-comedy tone and over-the-top plotting to ridicule audiences who genuinely admired the murderous Hannibal Lecter, the filmmakers apply the same story yet still try to maintain that this is a serious work of art. Obviously, director Ridley Scott and co. didn’t get the joke.

The Silence of the Lambs, released almost ten years ago to the day, holds a place as one of my favorite movies of all time. It grossed $131 million, became only the third film in history to win the top-five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay), helped jump-start the genre of adult horror films, which had been in flux since Halloween positioned the horror film as a teen-based genre back in 1978. Alas, where Silence of the Lambs left its mark due to its myth-like quality (it’s often been called a great modern fairy tale), Hannibal tries for the same renascence but is constantly pulled back by the pulpy satirical qualities of the original novel. The filmmakers either should have been faithful to the tone of the book, or less faithful to the plot.

The plot is generally a three-pronged story that occasionally overlaps. The first thirty minutes sets up our heroine, Clarice Starling (played by Julianne Moore this time, but given little to do but sit in her basement office), as the fall-person for an FBI drug raid gone wrong (this is sloppy writing as there are several witnesses who can attest that other parties are completely at fault). To keep her under wraps while the media fries her, she is assigned to look into a new lead on Dr. Hannibal Lecter (again played by Anthony Hopkins, but unfortunately stripped of all malevolent cunning that made him so creepy, now becoming simply another intelligent movie predator), who has been hiding in Venice, Italy as an art scholar. Meanwhile, Lecter’s only surviving victim, Mason Verger: a wealthy, wheelchair-bound, facially disfigured (VERY disfigured) pedophile has offered a $3 million reward for his live capture so that Lecter can be slowly fed to several genetically mutated hogs. The unbilled and unrecognizable Gary Oldman, who plays Verger, has a ball chewing up the scenery oozing sleaze and bitterness, and the film makes an error in making him less of a major character than in the book, leaving the film without a major villain.

After a local Florence detective (played by Giancarlo Giannini in the film’s best performance) recognizes Lecter, he decides to make a play for Verger’s bounty. This pursuit through the streets of Venice takes up the entire second act and is the best portion of the film. This hour long passage nearly redeems what comes before and almost makes up for what follows. Dear Clarice spends the entire first two acts in her basement office listening to recordings of her past conversations with Lecter. A big tactical error is made is having Moore re-dub her own voice over Jodie Foster’s for these recordings, as it instantly reminds us that Moore is simply a replacement Clarice, and a much less compelling one. One can certainly understand why Foster passed on this one. It wasn’t the book’s ghoulish violence, or the wicked, “extended middle-finger” of an ending (which is slightly changed for the movie). The problem is that Hannibal’s Clarice is basically a one-dimensional agitated victim of a patriarchal government system. While Foster’s Clarice suffered (in a much subtler, effective manner) from the same system, Starling’s obvious intelligence, sharp instincts, and strong empathy is all but absent from Moore’s interpretation. If one had not seen The Silence of the Lambs, one would not have a clue as to why Lecter finds her so fascinating.

So, in the end, you have a gore-fest without the requisite gore, a thriller with few thrills (although a brief chase between a pickpocket and Lecter is genuinely gripping), and a character study with two-dimensional characters (save for Giancarlo Giannini’s Inspector Pazzi, as a man who’s fate occurs not out of greed, but out of duty and personal responsibility). Despite a terrific second act, winning performances by Giannini and Oldman, and a surprisingly subtle piano score by Hans Zimmer, Hannibal is just a big-budget slasher flick, without the required high body count and gory goodness. A slasher flick with big stars, an $80 million budget, beautiful scenery, and various references to the European arts is still a slasher film. Thomas Harris’ novel was a sick gag, a practical joke to all those who made Hannibal Lecter a heroic icon in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, Ridley Scott tries to trick us into thinking we are seeing something that is important, a deep, philosophical mediation on the nature of evil. Maybe Scott should have read the cliff notes too.

Grade: C

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