Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Director's Spotlight #7.13: Ridley Scott's Hannibal

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 32 (C-)

Why? Why does this thing exist? What purpose did it serve, other than money? Who read this script and saw opportunity for a good movie? Ridley Scott followed up his Best Picture winner Gladiator (odd to think that it beat Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but eh) with Hannibal, the long-awaited/dreaded sequel to Jonathan Demme’s Best Picture winner, The Silence of the Lambs. The pre-production of the film could make for a fascinating story itself: Demme, original star Jodie Foster, and writer Ted Tally all turned down the chance to make Hannibal, believing it to be more lurid than its predecessor. The only major player who returned was Anthony Hopkins, with Julianne Moore filling in for Foster, a script written by David Mamet and Steve Zaillian, and Scott stepping in for Demme. Hannibal wasn’t just a paycheck film for Scott- he called the book “a symphony” and went all out directing it. It’s a testament to his filmmaking chops that the film is watchable at all, but what in the hell he saw in this material is beyond me.

Ten years after her career-making capture of serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, Clarice Starling (Moore) is now facing fierce criticism from the FBI after a raid gone wrong. Starling is contacted by two people: Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), the psychologist serial killer who helped her catch Gumb before escaping at the end of the last film, and Mason Verger (an uncredited, unrecognizable Gary Oldman), a horrifically disfigured former child molester and Lecter’s only surviving victim. Verger wants to capture, torture, and kill Lecter, and he uses his wealth to influence both corrupt FBI agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta filling in for a deceased Ron Vawter) and Florence police chief Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), who believes he has tracked down Lecter. Now Starling has to find Lecter before Verger finds him…or he finds Verger.

Give Scott this credit: he takes this absurd, over-the-top plot and runs with it. Scott’s old film influences (atmospheric Orson Welles, cold Stanley Kubrick) show up, but really, Hannibal is just as influenced by Scott’s love of opera (the most memorable sequence in the film shows Hopkins and Giannini at the opera) and classical literature (numerous references to Dante) as anything else. It’s an over-the-top film, to be sure, but at least it isn’t an impersonal piece of hackwork like the next Lecter entry, Red Dragon. Scott uses gorgeous locations and ornate homes and museums for the setting while shooting everything through his beloved blue light lens. His use of fans, mist, smoke, shadows, and well-placed shafts of light are as effective as ever. Hannibal is a movie that’s successful at establishing a cold and moody tone, at least for the film’s first half, that’s engaging even if the script doesn’t work. Scott is perhaps the moody opposite to original director Jonathan Demme- Scott is cold where Demme is warm, Demme’s film was realistic and harrowing where Scott’s is an operatic grand guignol horror film, and Demme was political where Scott is decidedly apolitical (although both are feminists). It doesn’t make for a successful film, but at least it’s trying something different (Red Dragon is just trying to be Silence of the Lambs).

That said…hoo boy, this doesn’t work. The problems are legion: the film makes Lecter the center of everything where previous entries (Silence, Manhunter) made him the piece of a puzzle; the film plays him up way too much and trying too hard to make him creepy. Scott and his screenwriters almost make Lecter supernatural rather than super-intelligent, and the scares become more predictable because of it. Then there’s the violence: Silence was successful in large part because Demme made the violence more psychological than visceral. Most of the graphic violence was offscreen, where in Hannibal it’s up front to the point where it’s just disgusting and ludicrous (a character’s intestines get spilled, people are fed to boars, Verger peels his own face off).  It’s way too florid to the point where it’s downright goofy rather than scary.

Most of the supporting cast is weaker, too. Demme made a film with an interesting cast full of fascinating characters. Few of the actors here get much of anything to craft a character out of: Frankie Faison is a good carry-over from Silence, but he’s only in the film for a bit. Ray Liotta overplays Krendler’s boorishness. Oldman is good, as always, as main antagonist Verger, but the whole conception of the character is part of why the film doesn’t work. Jame Gumb (Ted Levine in Silence) and Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan in Manhunter) were monsters, but they were people as well, and their realism made them frightening. Verger is designed to look disgusting on the outside as well as the inside. It’s effective for a bit, but ultimately it’s too literal a monster. It’s interesting that Scott goes for “corrupt, effete villain” rather than the other films’ more blue-collar serial-killers, but it just doesn’t work. Only Giancarlo Giannini as the sad-eyed, corrupt Pazzi comes out of this thing looking good. His scenes at least have more of a drive to them. As soon as he’s out of the picture at the end of act two (it’s no spoiler, you can see it coming), any sense of propulsion the film has goes.

Starling was the center of Silence, which is part of what made the film so effective. It’s curious, then, that she spends most of Hannibal sidelined at a desk job. There’s an attempt to make her more jaded by years of experience, she’s too inactive for anything to register. Julianne Moore is arguably the finest actress of her generation, but she has an impossible job filling in for Foster even under ideal circumstances. This film gives her nothing to do. She has no real vulnerability, as there’s never a sense that she’s in danger, be it because Lecter likes her too much or because she’s behind a goddamned desk the whole time. It gives her the paltriest sense of strength or intelligence. Shame that a director who’s given women some truly terrific roles over the years couldn’t find a way to do more with one of the great female roles of our time.

Instead, the focus is on Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins was terrific and measured in his Oscar-winning role in Silence, but given free reign, Hannibal and Hopkins are not scary. Instead, Hopkins overplays the overly-dignified nature of Lecter, not to mention the character’s sense of his own creepiness. It’s a total ham performance that never feels fresh or threatening at any point. Part of it no doubt has to do with the character’s overexposure, and part has to do with Hopkins’ own hammy tendencies (he’s even worse in Red Dragon). But ultimately, everything feels predetermined. Hannibal is going to kill the other bad guys but keep Clarice alive. He’s going to do some gross stuff. He’s going to escape so that there can be another movie. Yawn.

Ultimately, the movie is dull. It looks great, and Scott directs it to the best of his abilities, but it’s an empty film with no sense of urgency. Clarice’s obsession is never felt- she’s too inactive, and that’s why her story doesn’t work. Verger’s obsession over Hannibal is more tangible, but he too is too inactive for most of the film. As for Hannibal’s obsession with Clarice, it feels more like a script contrivance than something organic. With the exception of Pazzi’s need to capture Hannibal to provide for his young wife, Scott’s explorations of their obsessions falls flat. His exploration of mortality at least has a better sense of what it’s trying to do (death as punishment for the truly wicked), but it’s so over the top that it’s impossible to take seriously. By the time Hannibal arrives in America in the idiotic third act, any sense of interest falls away for canned suspense, non-scary “scary” scenes, and the famously idiotic brain-eating finale. Hannibal isn’t the worst film of Scott’s career, but it might be the most pointless.

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