Eat Me Raw

The tasteless spectacle of Hannibal. 

Directed by Ridley Scott

It’s hard to imagine what (or who) was eating Thomas Harris when he wrote the novel Hannibal, the source of the rancid new movie that returns Anthony Hopkins to the role of Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Its immediate predecessors, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, were morbid but also rich and satisfying serial-killer thrillers—a cunning weave of the fairy tale, the forensic, and the fetishistic. Hannibal, on the other hand, is simply a fat slab of sadism. The central consciousness no longer belongs to the conflicted serial-killer tracker—the scientist/voyeur of Red Dragon, Will Graham; or the tremulous daughter figure of Silence, Clarice Starling—but the cannibalistic murderer himself: an unlikely blend of Renaissance man and savage who now primarily slaughters the evil and prefers to eat the “rude—free-range rude.” The moral climate, meanwhile, has been simplified to the point of psychosis. In Silence, the young FBI trainee Starling struggled to reconcile the influence of three competing fathers—her real (but dead) one, her straight-laced bureau mentor, and her powerfully brilliant but homicidal tutor. With Lecter now a vigilante anti-hero whose disembowelings are triumphal, the contest for Starling’s affections is over. The world of Hannibal has been reduced to the dictum, “Eat or be eaten”—so why not throw your lot in with a gourmet chef? 

Was Harris, as some have suggested, sending a poison-pen letter to the movie’s Clarice, Jodie Foster, who had been brashly asserting that The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was a work of groundbreaking feminism? There’s no way to know, but he could hardly have repelled her more effectively. Arrivederci, Jodie. Harris must also have known that no director in his or her right mind would want to shoot the novel’s climactic dinner table scene, least of all Jonathan Demme—who had barely made his peace with the exploitative elements of Silence. What kept Silence from being just another gorefest was the tension between Demme the goofy liberal humanist of Handle With Care (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980) and Demme the lover (and sometime director) of Roger Cormanesque schlock. He didn’t set out to transcend the serial-killer genre (he was a fan of Thomas’ novel), but he was temperamentally incapable of presenting the humans on screen as expendable receptacles of blood and brain matter. Demme filled almost every bit part with one of his regulars or colleagues or buddies: Their deaths were meant to shake you up, not get you off.

The best that can be said for Ridley Scott, the director of Hannibal, is that he seems a bit oblivious to the meaning of what he shows. Chest-bustings (Alien [1979]), beheadings (Black Rain [1989]), small boys being flattened by chariots (Gladiator [2000]): It’s all just spectacle to him—interesting textures to light, bright colors to jazz up the frame, explosive movements to add a kinetic charge. In Silence, Demme was working in a female-centered, Gothic tradition, and the violence was viewed subjectively and with real horror. Scott takes his cue from Harris and gives you full-bore Grand Guignol, with its lavish tortures and splatter and culinary air of relish. He shoots this stuff head-on. When a man is hung with his belly cut open, his steaming intestines spill out onto the ground. When another has his throat cut, there’s an extra shot of blood erupting from his jugular. Say what you will about Scott’s taste: He and his cannibal protagonist are splendidly in sync.

Does Hannibal work on its own Grand Guignol terms? Parts of it do. Scott knows how to the shoot the city of Florence, Italy—where Lecter has “replaced” the curator of a rare-manuscript collection—to bring out all the voluptuous cruelty at the heart of its architecture. There’s something perversely soothing about his big, square, baroque compositions, with their thickened surfaces and hard shards of light. Lecter sips his red wine or liqueur in one of innumerable cafes, looking both rakish and slightly “off” in his white suits and hat and black glasses—like a Truman Capote who’d actually committed the murders in In Cold Blood.

The key to Hannibal’s skewed moral scheme is that Harris has come up with a master villain who is infinitely more repulsive than Lecter: Mason Verger, a billionaire child molester whom Lecter once induced (don’t ask) to tear off his own face. You can’t discern Gary Oldman in Verger’s baby-bird-from-hell visage—no lips, a dead eye like the white of a boiled egg, translucent pus-yellow skin stretched tightly over muscle. But you can recognize him in those deliciously deadpan, WASP-mummy readings. (How did he keep a straight face?) The problem is that Verger has concocted a scheme to apprehend and torture Lecter that seems like more trouble than it’s worth (that’s the very rich for you)—something to do with gigantic Sardinian hogs that have been trained to eat the good doctor piece by piece. Whatever you think of Scott’s touch with actors, it’s more confident than his work with gigantic hogs. If there were hundreds of films featuring sequences of marauding gigantic hogs, these would still be the lamest marauding gigantic hogs sequences of all time.

Screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian have made a couple of clever changes in Harris’ narrative, especially a friendly cell phone exchange during a moment of high-style horror. They’ve done what they could with that climactic plat du jour—a sauté of cervelles de chauviniste au beurrenoisette—which here features Ray Liotta as Starling’s incorrigibly smutty-mouthed government superior. The movie’s resolution is different, however: Suffice it to say that Hannibal climaxes with the most heartwarming dismemberment I’ve ever seen. Alas, it’s the only moment in the picture in which Lecter and Starling actually interact. If there’s a terminal flaw in both the novel and the film, it’s that the central thread of TheSilence of the Lambs—the evolving rapport between the apprentice and the dark master—is allowed simply to shrivel.

A decade ago, Harris reportedly told Jonathan Demme that he might not see The Silenceof the Lambs for some time (if at all): He cited John le Carré’s experience of watching the English miniseries of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and being unable to get Alec Guinness out of his head the next time he wrote about the character George Smiley. The big difference here is that Harris might have learned something from Foster, whose Starling was more nuanced: The tension between the actress’s feminist agenda (“I must be a powerful role model!”) and her awareness of Starling’s fragility was right there on the surface. To be honest, I’d rather see Julianne Moore over Foster in almost any movie—except this one. So much of what we want in a sequel to Silence has nothing to do with Starling’s response to Lecter, but Foster’s response to Anthony Hopkins.

Moore is excellent, by the way. Her dry, clipped delivery recalls Foster’s, and her brittle officiousness is almost as pregnant with uncertainty. She looks terrific with a gun—as if she’s firing it, not posing with it. It’s not her fault that Starling has become such a dull girl. It’s also not Hopkins’ fault that both he and his character have been living the good life for the last decade. In Silence, Hopkins was lean and hungry—stripped down to frighteningly pure sadism. Many organ meats later, he doesn’t cut so striking a figure. Lecter was scarier when I wasn’t thinking, “Brains, liver, pancreas—his cholesterol must be through the roof!”