Thursday, June 07, 2007

Hannibal Rising (2007)

The latest, and hopefully last, of the Hannibal Lecter movies is a triumph of marketing over character. Ever since The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris has made a career of making over his accidentally ambiguous villain, rendered fascinating primarily by Anthony Hopkins’ performance and chemistry with Jodie Foster, into a stale anti-hero. What was a playful subtext in Lambs became ridiculously overt in Hannibal and starkly and uninterestingly un-mythologized in Hannibal Rising.

The film is constructed of moments which tease the audience about the mature killer to come; knowledge, and indeed some amount of worship, is required to make this film make sense. Not that it’s terribly complicated: war scavengers in WWII Lithuania eat his sister and he grows up into a sadistic cannibal. Naturally. Unfortunately, the film only uses this premise as license to be sadistic itself, rather than actually attempt to create a plausible backstory. And perhaps it is impossible, not to mention unadvisable, to try to explain a monster.

And sadistic the film is, not because it deals in cannibalism or revenge or gore, but because it does so gleefully, like Hannibal himself. And perhaps that’s why the film takes him as its hero—if we are to be implicated along with him, we will likewise be exonerated. The movie’s message is that Mankind did this to a boy who grew up to dish it back to Mankind; and the path that Hannibal’s later life follows does nothing to counter this view or tarnish his tragic anti-hero image.

My contention is not that Hannibal is not an interesting character, or is unworthy of our consideration as representative of something we, as a society, find endlessly fascinating. But Hannibal Rising deprives the character of his mystery, and has nothing on the original. It is one thing, after all, to read against the grain and find something attractive or heroic in the bad guy’s subtext, and quite another to take the text and shine all the ambiguity, all the fun of transgressive viewing, out of it. And for “transgressive,” read “fun.”

Hannibal Lecter, the character, is no fan of subtlety when it comes to his crimes. But in his tastes, he is a gourmet, and I can’t help but think he’d hate this movie. Then again, he likes to eat brains, so maybe he shouldn’t be our guide in these things. But it is altogether a different meal from Silence of the Lambs, and the fact that it is meant to be does not, in my opinion, excuse it. I didn’t want Silence of the Lambs Redux, but I’d have been much happier leaving it as my sole entrĂ©e into the mind of this particular killer.

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