Deep Beneath the Skin: Hannibal‘s Flowers of Evil
The character of Hannibal Lecter has had a difficult journey over the years. The charming, terrifying psychiatrist and serial killer has made his creator, Thomas Harris, very rich, and has become what is known in our media-savvy age as a ‘franchise’, but the artistic merit of that franchise is a decidedly mixed bag. Harris’ novels themselves have degenerated from a crafty blend of psychological horror and police procedural down to fan-servicing potboilers; the films made from his work have ranged from outstanding (The Silence of the Lambs) to absysmal (Hannibal and Hannibal Rising), with Michael Mann’s Manhunter, a stylish but clumsy adaptation of Red Dragon, ranging in the middle.
It has become fashionable to minimize Anthony Hopkins’ iconic take on the character because it was, after all, just as world-devouring and monstrous as Hannibal himself, but I think this is unfair. Certainly Hopkins ate up the whole screen in his indelible performance in The Silence of the Lambs, but he also managed to capture much of the character’s essential qualities (his intellectual charm, his cruel rigor, the easy way he insinuates himself into his victims’ heads). Was he over the top? Certainly, but only as much as the role required. It would only be a problem if he greatly overshadowed everyone else in the film, and that is certainly not the case; excellent work was turned in by nearly everyone in the cast, from Jodie Foster’s exceptionally sensitive performance to Ted Levine as the twisted Buffalo Bill to minor players like Frankie Faison, Kasi Lemmons, and Tracey Walter. One of the most tightly controlled performances is given by Scott Glenn as Foster’s superior, the calculating F.B.I. profiler Jack Crawford.
In Bryan Fuller’s excellent new television series Hannibal, that role goes to the perpetually outstanding Laurence Fishburne, who imbues it with some of Glenn’s quiet dignity, but ramps up his authority (the few times Fishburne barks commands, you come to understand that Crawford got to where he is through something more than just talent) and introduces a subtle line of regret with the greater role given to his wife Bella, dying of cancer at too young an age. (Bella is played with great will and dignity by Fishburne’s actual wife, Gina Torres, and the character is wisely expanded from the books.) The greater scope of the series allows Fuller to do what is only sometimes hinted at in the books and elsewhere: question Crawford’s judgment, and let us see how his desperate passion to save lives leads him to make reckless gambles that might achieve the exact opposite end.
Crawford was played elsewhere by Harvey Keitel and Dennis Farina — the role has never lacked for talent — but Glenn’s sad silence comes from somewhere that kept him from repeating it. Before filming, John Douglas, the special investigator on whom the character was based, played Glenn an audio recording of the actual torture and rape of the teen victim of a pair of particularly repugnant serial killers, hoping to bring the actor into the mindset of a decent man who had to deal with such horrors every day; it so disturbed Glenn that he walked away from the role for good, and almost quit midway through filming. Hannibal has many failings, one of which is that the serial murders are so artful, so abstracted from any hint of this sort of real human suffering, that it is nearly impossible to care about the victims on any level whatsoever. (This particularly undercuts the story when, midway through the second season, one of Crawford’s team, the determined Beverly Katz, becomes a victim of Lecter; we are clearly meant to have a more emotional reaction, but we’ve almost been trained not to by constant exposure to the painterly affectations of the many victims of the show’s absurdly high population of mass murderers.)
This is hardly Hannibal‘s only flaw. Its plots are beyond absurd; as has been noted elsewhere, it portrays Baltimore as a city where serial murders are as common as jaywalking, but where, it seems, only a handful of law enforcement agents are assigned to solving, let alone preventing, them. Even when they are effective (as with Amanda Plummer’s well-meaning new age therapist), the killers-of-the-week are ridiculously implausible, and the nature of police procedure is subordinated to plot necessity to a laughable degree (Will Graham openly confesses to trying to have Hannibal Lecter murdered, for example, and suffers no legal repercussions — indeed, he is released from confinement after doing so). For all the highfalutin therapeutic talk and focus on the psychology of criminal behavior, psychiatry itself is portrayed as something very like sorcery — halfway between telepathy and mind control, and practiced by unbalanced grandees from treasure-stuffed towers and moldering dungeons.
So why is the show so goddamn good?
Part of it is the much-ballyhooed visual style of the show. Combining gorgeously imagined body horror in a highly artistic manner with food porn, enthralling environmental effects, and a fascinatingly powerful combination of modern and retro set and costume design, Hannibal is an astonishing thing to simply look at. Its muted but deep color palette, moody use of architecture, and innumerable classical references in both cuisine and homicide make it a treat to look at, and everything is attenuated in such a way that even some of the most repulsive scenes of violence –such as this week, when a murder victim was found sewn inside of a pregnant horse — are riveting to look at. It’s amazing they can get away with such high levels of gore on a network show, but they do so by never making it seem excessive, even when it clearly is.
The storytelling makes good use of its various tools — metaphor, meaning and foreshadowing are particularly well-employed, even if they have a canyon’s width and a puddle’s depth — inasmuch as the audience is willing to accept their service to an inherently lunatic narrative. The theme of this week’s episode, that, in Hannibal’s words, “it feels good to do bad things to bad people”, could neatly encapsulate the series as a whole; it’s hardly breaking new ground to point out that the abyss gazes also, but Hannibal manages to sell the idea with great style and aplomb, if not much conviction. The moral weight of the story is tissue-thin (and rests almost entirely on Jack Crawford’s burly shoulders), but it does considerably better work in showing how easy it is for sympathy and empathy to become commingled, and how difficult it is to put yourself in someone’s shoes without also putting them in your head. It was an easy sale from the beginning that Will Graham might himself be the kind of maniac he is so good at hunting, and if the show gave Freddie Lounds a little more depth, it might make a point of showing that her belief that Will is a dangerous lunatic isn’t merely self-serving. One of the cleverest tricks the narrative pulls in this regard, as well as one of its finest winks to fans of the franchise, is taking the ‘first principles’ speech (delivered by Hopkins in Silence to Foster) out of Hannibal Lecter’s mouth and putting it, almost word for word, in Graham’s; so identical are their mindsets, one merely emptied of any moral pull, that they are constantly thinking alike, and increasingly using the world as chess pieces in a game only they are playing.
But it’s really the performances that elevate the show to greatness, and save it from being merely a thing of surface perfection. Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham is intensely damaged as a human being, so genuinely terrified by his gift at first that he doesn’t know what kind of a man he is; once he finds out, he’s almost inadvertently become his mirror image. Raul Esparza brought a sophistication and insight to Dr. Chilton absent in prior portrayals, Aaron Abrams and the delightful Scott Thompson never fail to amuse, and while Caroline Dhavernas hasn’t been given a great deal to do with her character, she at least displays a wounded sensitivity, an ability to relate to the deepest damage in everyone that places her, both emotionally and physically, in harm’s path. The smaller performances (particularly Gillian Anderson, who, as Hannibal’s cagey ex-therapist, did more with body language than most actors do with their entire being) have been good enough to entrust the creators with the forthcoming stories we know a bit better. And Mads Mikkelsen is a stunner as Hannibal Lecter; taking bits and pieces of the best of previous performances (Brian Cox’s shrewd strategic calculation and alien cruelty and Anthony Hopkins’ vicious intelligence and disarming charisma) while bring his own utterly disarming presence, along with a motivation the character previously lacked: he is a genius child or an extraterrestrial tyro, gifted with uncanny insight into human minds and using it to shake them around like bugs in a box. In a show that is all about manipulation and deceit, it is these actors and our trust in them to deliver, often above their material, that has made Hannibal worth watching in a dreary overabundance of serial killer melodrama.