Friday, April 01, 2005

Manhunter: Michael Mann's Transformations

The point of Thomas Harris' entire life-work was to force us into the process that his serial killers themselves are undergoing (at a much more disturbed and transgressive level, of course). We are intended ourselves to transform (in idea only, to be sure) into people who can begin to understand, however much we ourselves fear and loath the transformation, how Harris' serial killers think and feel.

To some extent, we are beginners on the same path that Will Graham is farther along upon, that Clarice Starling starts upon and that Dr. Lektor, Dollarhyde, etc, are unspeakably far along upon. The narrative of the Harris books is a vortex upon which more and more people, beginning down that transformative path (sometimes with the best of intentions), do, in fact, transform from humans into something other than human (except for Will Graham and Dr. Bloom).

Where Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon all fail is that these three movies continue to keep us at a distance. We are not convinced that we ourselves could become victim to the vortex by these three movies. Partially, this is a function of Hopkins' over-the-top performance and improper displacement of the actual focus of Harris' trilogy: Harris focuses upon the agents, Graham and Starling, who begin the transformative process but end transforming in highly divergent ways.

Moving from book to screen, the necessity of Harris' vision entails that the film-maker begin to transform us from pure observers or watchers into beginning to transform ourselves, to begin to fear our own attraction to power, to horror, to transgression. Michael Mann is able to do this, while Demme/Scott/Rattner are unable to do so, by the things in Manhunter that so many commentators hate: instead of plotting the movie solely as a police procedural (as the three other movies are), instead Michael Mann turns the movie primarily into a sinuous, constantly cryptic, meandering journey through the experiences (which we share) of Graham and Dollarhyde. The plot is irrelevant, the importance is that we draw ever-closer to becoming Dollarhyde.

The driving music, the inherent attraction of Noonan's Dollarhyde (who has excellent taste in clothes, architecture, music and is himself a film-maker of sorts) are not superfluous as many believe but very much the essential core of the movie. We gradually become attracted to Noonan's inherent coolness, and identify ourselves with Reba McClane, the blind girl who begins an affair with Dollarhyde.

This identification leads to what I believe is the central scene in the movie: when McClane rubs the fur of a drugged tiger. We, along with McClane, begin to feel, admire and even long for the power of the tiger. We, on some level, wish to transform into a tiger, into something other than human. We take the first steps of becoming Dollarhyde. And that is what is truly frightening about Manhunter.


Blogger Jonty H Campbell said...

How does Manhunter tell its story, as opposed to say 'Heat'? The narrative? Both in terms of Mise enshot and Scene...

1:29 PM  

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