Hannibal Lecter, C'est Moi
To restate what should be common knowledge, Hannibal is the sequel to Jonathan Demme’s multiple Academy Award-winning 1991 feature The Silence of the Lambs. Both Demme and original star Jodie Foster opted out of this second go-round in the relationship between serial murderer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and FBI firebrand Clarice Starling. Enter Julianne Moore as Starling, and director Ridley Scott, who make Hannibal gorier than Silence, sometimes a little too much so for my taste (and I like to think I have a pretty high tolerance for horror show splatter shots). Nevertheless, Scott has a distinctive eye, and like all his films, Hannibal is richly textured and colored, with a host of shifting film stocks and swoopy camera work that make it visually pleasing throughout.
The question on everyone’s mind, undoubtedly, is whether the film “lives up” to its predecessor, but in many ways, the question is immaterial to the film’s possible success and to its narrative. While alluding often to Silence, Hannibal is different enough that it stands on its own, most specifically in its focus on Lecter, who has become one of the most beloved fictional characters of the past fifteen years.
Whereas Silence was peripherally about the relationship between Lecter and Starling, and largely about the diminutive Starling’s attempts to make it in a hyper-alpha male dominated profession, Hannibal is nothing more, or less, than a celebration of the Doctor’s seductive malevolence. As the character’s immense popularity suggests, there is something about Lecter that appeals to “us,” there appears to be some level on which “we” all wish we could be a little more like him, which is precisely what the filmmakers are banking on. And this is, in the end, the scariest thing about Hannibal—its perverse worship of the cannibalistic Doctor.
The story is pretty simple. It is ten years after Lecter escaped, and bureaucrats and chauvinists at the FBI have slowly beaten down Starling. She never captured the prestigious post in the Behavioral Sciences she so coveted, and has instead been relegated to working street level drug busts. In one of these busts, Starling is faced with a dicey situation involving a criminal queen-pin, Evelda Drumgo (Hazelle Goodman), and her baby, and the choice she makes leads to her public humiliation in the press and her betrayal by Bureau supervisors and governmental watch dogs. Just then, the FBI gets new information on Lecter’s whereabouts, but also learns that the person with the information, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), will only give the news to Starling. As she is the only person to have developed a personal relationship with the Doctor, and because of Verger’s stipulations, Starling is back on the trail, but with a very short leash. The rest of the film is a pretty standard game of cat and mouse among (principally) Clarice, Hannibal, and the film’s real arch-villain, Mason Verger.
You see, in order to extol Lecter and assuage any audience anxieties or guilt over their adoration of him, Harris and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (David Mamet is credited as writer for doing a first draft, but Zaillian wrote most of the final film) wisely offer us an even more evil, more despicable enemy in Mason Verger—well, at least Hannibal is not as bad as him! Verger was the only one of Hannibal’s victims to be left alive, and his encounter with the Doctor left him quadriplegic and horribly disfigured (in one of the more gruesome scenes, we witness a flashback of Verger cutting off his own face while Lecter feeds the pieces to Verger’s dogs). And so, it is Verger who has been aggressively hunting Lecter down, gives Starling the clues to get her started, and concocts an elaborate plan to take his own revenge.
In order to make Hannibal look even better, the film dwells on Starling’s downfall within the Bureau. Justice Department ladder-climber Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), in cahoots with Verger, works to disgrace her. And there are any number of governmental bureaucrats and FBI cronies who sacrifice Starling to cover their own asses in response to the public outcry over the debacle with the queen-pin. In contrast to all this backstabbing by the law-and-order boys, Hannibal’s admiration of Starling and his sense of ethical responsibility to his friends—Starling and former psychiatric nurse Barney (Frankie Faison)—seems respectable indeed.
Hannibal further helps us see the “goodness” in Lecter by showing us how deeply Starling’s experiences with him have affected her and how she has become more and more like him. Starling admits to Barney that she thinks of Lecter “thirty seconds of every day,” and that he is always with her, “like a bad habit.” In her very first appearance, Starling is sleeping in the DEA van en route to the ill-fated bust. One of the officers in the van queries, “How can she sleep at a time like this?” Of course, we all know that one of Lecter’s trademarks and what makes him such a successful and methodical killer is his ability to remain calm. And later, facing her federal betrayers, she asserts that their lack of confidence in her “changes everything, it changes me.” Changes her into what, or more pointedly, who? Mrs. Lecter.
Hannibal does try to complicate, however briefly, its own canonization of Lecter. In one scene, as Lecter stands with his back to an open window, with light and shadow playing across his features, his face looks exactly like the mutilated face of Mason Verger. Just as the moral and behavioral distinctions between Hannibal and Clarice are muddied, so too are the distinctions between Verger and Lecter.
What is it about the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter that is so alluring? Is it something to do with his embodiment of the Nietzschean Superman taken to one of its logical extremes? Perhaps it is Lecter’s absolute amorality conjoined with an ethics of personal behavior and pretentious dedication to the good life. Lecter is a good old-fashioned snob. He has exquisite taste and impeccable style, and, whenever possible, prefers to “only kill rude people.” We all gripe about the “idiots” at work and the “rude” people we run into every day, so maybe on some level Lecter’s selective killings appeal to our own fantasies of creating our particular vision of a better world, at that same time that his character and lifestyle appeal to our own champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Whatever the reasons, Hannibal is clearly in awe of its title character, and repeatedly suggests that, like Clarice Starling and Mason Verger, we are all, or would like to be, Hannibal Lecter.