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Red Dragon (2002)

Todd R. Ramlow

What is most politically problematic about Red Dragon is how it furthers the relationship between physical disability and psychopathology.

Red Dragon

Director: Brett Ratner
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald, Frankie Faison
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-10-04

Red Dragon opens with a familiar tidbit of Hannibal Lecter lore. It's the story he told in Silence of the Lambs about the Baltimore symphony flautist who played so badly Hannibal had to eat him. We first see the Doctor (Anthony Hopkins) sitting in the audience, wincing so very gently at the musician's gaffs.

Then Hannibal is entertaining the symphony board of directors in his elegantly appointed dining room, serving them what we know to be some part from the flautist. When one board member asks what the delicious dish is that he has prepared for them, Lecter replies, "Oh, I am afraid if I told you, you wouldn't want to eat it." It's a typical Lecter moment, one we have come to expect, in which we can enjoy (or perhaps indulge ourselves in) Hannibal's mordant wit, psychotic tendencies, and dedication to the finer things in life. That Hannibal has become so beloved by audiences, despite (or because of) the fact that he is a cannibalistic serial murderer, is one of the more perplexing developments in recent pop culture (and as I have remarked on previously, in my review of Ridley Scott's Hannibal).

The character's continuing popularity was obvious at the Red Dragon screening I attended. Amidst all the suspense and gore, the audience was really waiting for Hannibal, and his caustic observations repeatedly solicited appreciative laughter. One wonders what all Lecter's fans will do next, now that all of Thomas Harris's books of the Doctor's exploits have been given cinematic treatment. This is the second movie based on Red Dragon, Harris's first Lecter book, the first being Michael Mann's 1986 Manhunter, a respectable film in its own right, although Ratner's is more coherent.

Like the other films, this one is about a killer's relationship with a cop. Red Dragon's opening scene shows the last murder Lecter committed before he is captured by Special Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton, who is, as ever, excellent). Just after the dinner party, Graham shows up to discuss a case about which Lecter is advising the FBI. As the two men talk, we come to realize, along with Graham, that Lecter is the man the feds seek. Hannibal surprises Graham moments later, they struggle, Graham barely escapes with his life, and Hannibal is locked up.

This brush with death drives Graham from public service and into a hospital. After his release, he retreats with his wife Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and son Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones) to the tropical bliss of Marathon Key. Graham admits that after working with Lecter, he felt "dirty," and as if he was "losing himself." This initiates a strange sort of equivalence between the doctor and his pursuers. As with Clarice Starling, the relationship between Lecter and Graham is symbiotic. The distance between Lecter and Graham, Hannibal suggests, is not that far. Nor is the distance between Hannibal and "us."

The symphony story, however, is mostly background material, leading up to the necessity for Special Agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) to lure Graham out of his self-imposed retirement to work on a new case. The FBI is hot on the trail of a serial killer whom tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has dubbed the "Tooth Fairy" (Francis Dolarhyde, played by Ralph Fiennes). Graham quickly capitulates, and the film, after a rather sputtering start, is off and running.

The investigation into the Tooth Fairy is engaging and has moments of real suspense, even if it is recognizable, and in two respects. First, forensic pathology and crime scene investigation have become all too common as a narrative vehicle, especially on the small screen. The proliferation and popularity of shows like Forensic Files, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Crossing Jordan, CSI, and now CSI: Miami, among many others, make Red Dragon feel recycled from other venues. Although it is worth considering why, as a culture, we have recently become so fascinated with the nitty gritty details of violent crime; a fascination that all these tv shows and films participate in and reproduce.

Second, in its cat-and-mouse game among Hannibal, Agent Graham and Francis Dolarhyde, Red Dragon repeats almost exactly the narrative structure of The Silence of the Lambs. Of course, this may be largely a function of the formulaic nature of Thomas Harris's novels rather than the filmmakers' shortcomings. Nevertheless, Ratner's film extends these similarities, even going as far as to directly replicate images from Jonathan Demme's film (some of whose images are reminiscent of Mann's movie). This is most obvious in the sequence of shots when Graham first goes to interview Lecter at the Baltimore Forensic Hospital. It's the same long shot down the hall to the battered metal folding chair in front of Lecter's cell and the same back and forth tight shots of the interview as between Starling and the Doctor in Silence. Same narrative structure, same shot sequences.

What is most politically problematic about Red Dragon is how it furthers the relationship forged by Hannibal between physical disability and psychopathology. As in Scott's Hannibal, in Ratner's Red Dragon visible physical difference becomes a mark of internal malevolence. Francis Dolarhyde's disability is a cleft soft palate, which even after many childhood surgeries has left his face scarred. The film goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the Tooth Fairy was produced as a killer through years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse as a child. Yet, it also insists there be a physical correlate to that internal turmoil, that we be able to see the mark of his degeneracy on the surface of his body.

Throughout, while chasing Dolarhyde down, Graham, Crawford and Hannibal repeatedly assert that the man they are looking for is "physically disfigured, most likely on the face." It's one of the most common stereotypes in the representation of disability -- that physical difference is directly reflective of psychological or moral degeneracy.

It is telling then that what is consistently left out of the Hannibal Lecter films, but which is a part of all three books (and especially important in Hannibal), is that Dr. Lecter himself is differently abled. Lecter, in the books, is polydactylic; that is, he has six fingers on one hand. The visible mark of Hannibal's "internal" difference is never represented in Mann's, Demme's, Scott's, or now Ratner's films. This is because, I would suggest, the prejudicial connection of physical difference to psychological corruption is so integral to common cultural discourse, and so easily understood as a visual trope for social valuation and enfranchisement. Would Lecter be as popular a character, and could "we" be so sympathetic to, or even celebratory of, him were he to be so "obviously," so visibly different from the rest of us?

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