Hannibal Over-the-Top but Worth the Wait

By: Phillip Stewart

            The movie blurb branch of film criticism eats up films like Hannibal; is there an easier target than movies about cannibals?  Hannibal is a delicious treat with many flavors…,” “…Hannibal is a gourmet buffet of surprises,” “Hannibal is not for all tastes…,” or my personal favorite, “…Hannibal bites….”  But worse than the blurb critic is one bent on a sequel-bashing mission.  Anyone entering the theater expecting another The Silence of the Lambs will of course leave feeling disappointed.  Using one film to condemn the other is a pathetic copout.

            Ten years ago The Silence of the Lambs proved a success among both low and highbrow audiences; the film entertains and frightens on one level, but transcends its genre psychologically and emotionally on the other.  Its sequel Hannibal is a different movie altogether, but it too transcends the typical horror/suspense film, albeit in completely different ways.

            Johnathan Demme’s film was an exercise in suspense and subtlety, but Ridley Scott’s is one of excess, honoring atmosphere, tone, and image over story and suspense.  In fact, Hannibal’s story could be laughably ludicrous if it weren’t directed so well.

            Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name reviled most critics because of its extreme violence: genetically engineered man-eating boars, hanging and disembowelment, dogs eating faces, and most notably, dining on brains.  These are all things normal people have no desire to see, but Ridley Scott keeps all of them in the film, combining the Grand Guignol excess with beautiful photography and style—we do not want to look but he forces us to; it looks too good. 

            The film opens with a startling technique where the image slowly emerges from the blackness until it finally fills the screen.  Like the opening, most of the style in the film is relatively simple but astonishingly evocative and effective.  The final fifteen minutes reach some cosmic plateau where temporal movement halts; Scott hypnotizes us with his pacing and sound, and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Julianne Moore’s Clarice Starling do an amazing job of conveying that same feeling.  We feel as if we are experiencing a single moment in time throughout the entire section.

            One notable set piece involves a grand outdoor opera scene.  The music is lavish and sumptuous, almost contemplative.  Watching Hannibal relish in the music is nothing short of breathtaking.

            But the best scene in the film is the one everyone has been waiting to see for seven years—one where Clarice and Hannibal speak again.  Rather than between glass, they speak over cell phones in Union Station.  The scene is edited swiftly to increase intensity and exposes the essential difference between The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.  Silence was a quiet film full of small sublime moments; Hannibal has few quiet moments, valuing excess and sensory overload.

            Both work well on their own terms, but unfortunately Hannibal goes too far over-the-top at times.  In two scenes, music adds awkward comedy, and Scott lingers on grotesque images a bit too long.  Seeing a slit throat once is enough, but he makes us see it twice, and for prolonged periods.  Blue light and fog effects abound as well and should have been severely attenuated, and does Hannibal always need to be lit from underneath?  Finally, who needs to see a pig bite into an already deformed man’s face?

            On a more technical note, the sound in the film is superb.  On a crowded street we see a man holding change in his hands, and all we can hear is the jingle of the coins.  The opening credits are layered with many noises, some sounding strangely like chewing.  Heartbeats enter at times to increase the uneasiness.  Hannibal is not a scary movie on any level—it’s more about dread than fear, and the sound plays a truly vital role personifying that dread.

            Goldberg and Brandenberg play on the soundtrack.  We are in Hannibal’s world now.  Silence was Clarice’s movie; here she’s more a secondary character.  Ridley Scott does a masterful job of giving us Hannibal’s eyes.  He surrounds us in beauty but punctuates that with the gore and sick humor Hannibal loves so much. 

If you can stomach the blood and accept the plot, each subordinate to the direction, the film is some kind of masterpiece of transcendence.  Scott captures the tone of Lecter’s psyche incredibly well.  As a bonus, those knowing The Silence of Lambs will notice an abundance of visual and aural homages to the original film.  Listen for the autopsy flashbulb, watch for the cleverly edited door-entering sequence, and look at that jog in the woods (there are many many more examples).

Hannibal is a good movie.  Academics and critics are sure to either denounce it as gory trash or praise its flair but it’s hard to deny the film is a visual feast (I had to get one in there).  Grade: B+