The Hannibal phenomenon in pop culture will always be odd. Not many fictional serial killers inspire a Best Picture win, a five-film franchise, and a three-season TV show. Even stranger, most remain unaware that his first time on the big screen was not The Silence of the Lambs, but instead a wild vision of death and decay from the man behind Miami Vice. Yet Manhunter checks off many of Michael Mann’s signature interests. The stunning vision of a man rotting from the inside is one of Mann’s finest works, and remains one of his definitive character studies.
Based on Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, Manhunter follows criminal profiler Will Graham (William Peterson). After capturing Lecktor (Brian Cox), Graham retired from the force. However, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) comes calling after two gruesome murders by a man known as “The Tooth Fairy.” Graham digs into the case and returns down a dark path.
Mann often focuses on men disconnected from the world around them. Yet there’s a monomania that Peterson brings to Graham that ratchets up the anxiety. He is not a man on the edge but instead a man with untold darkness inside of him. If he were not obsessed with capturing killers, he would be one of them. While other interpretations of Graham have brought this nuance to screen (notably Hugh Dancy), Graham is a ghoul watching others strive for normalcy.
Peterson loses himself in the character, with thousand-yard stares every bit as intimidating as the men he captures. It’s one of the most unnerving performances captured on screen, coming to a peak as he shifts between home videos of the victims. We hear Farina fall silent as the rantings begin, but Mann keeps us with Peterson for as long as possible. It remains one of the best performances of the 1980s, if not its most underrated.
Mann’s style blasts through every corner of Manhunter. Few horror films have ever been this artistic, and Mann uses visual metaphors throughout. A simple shot/reverse shot puts us firmly in his vision for Graham. While he interrogates Lecktor, the positioning of the camera does not make it clear who is in prison. Mann’s entire reason for taking Manhunter boils down to this moment. As Graham crumbles, we question how close he is to becoming the monsters he hunts.
Mann reinforces the idea again in a supermarket, forcing Graham to admit the darkest thoughts he’s ever had to his son. It’s one of the few moments of Manhunter where the darkness is not literalized, but the mundanity of the grocery store makes for an even more chilling setting.
Mann calls on Farina to take the boss role, and he fits the role like a glove. No one has ever been a better Crawford. He carries the weight of bringing Graham back into the fold, and you can read the regret on Farina’s face. He knows the only way to catch the monster is to unleash his own, but as he stares at Graham in a hotel, we can see the fear in his eyes.
Tom Noonan’s performance as Dollarhyde chills to the bone. He moves through the world with a cold disposition, but it’s when he connects that real horror begins. His rage and jealousy unsettle, but the quiet, methodical nature of his killings are scary beyond belief. We see his POV during the opening scene of Manhunter, with Mann opting for found footage as Dollarhyde climbs the stairs to his victims. Whether Noonan knew this detail or not is unclear. Regardless, the veteran actor carries himself with fury and hubris. It’s the kind of portrayal that can only come with someone fully immersed within the role.
Last but not least, Cox delivers a very take on Lecktor. He’s controlled and arrogant. As Graham notes he’s “insane,” but it’s his pride that pushes him to act out against Graham. Cox brings an edgy twitch to Lecktor, a very different interpretation than the performance from Hopkins. While the Oscar-winner unnerved from the word go, Cox feels shockingly normal. This camouflage inspires an unsettling tinge of panic in the audience. We know something is off but cannot put their finger on what is wrong.
Mann’s glorious Manhunter remains a visual feast decades later. Like Miami Vice and Thief, his eye for shot composition and color is unmatched. Yet it’s the themes and darkness of Manhunter that engrain it into your mind. This one sticks with the viewer in ways even Demme’s masterpiece does not. It’s one of Mann’s best films and remains one of the great eighties thrillers.