This 1986 cult classic by Michael Mann is one of the most stylish adaptations of the Thomas Harris novels. Based on his early thriller Red Dragon, the film focuses on Will Graham (William Peterson), a criminal profiler called out of early retirement to investigate a case. The subject is Francis Dollarhyde, a particularly nasty serial killer who wipes out entire families. To ‘recover the mindset’ of a killer, Graham visits Lecktor (Brian Cox), the killer whose case caused him to retire in the first place. While Lecktor is only a minor character his presence haunts the investigation, as Graham closes in on his quarry. The visuals and soundtrack are unique and stylish.
On the surface, Manhunter has some oddities: the malevolent Lecktor is treated as important yet does very little, the killer is suddenly given a romantic sub-plot halfway through the film and a line of communication between Lecktor and the killer is set up but results in nothing. However, I would argue that all these points tie into a deeper structure in the plot; The structure of semantics. The characters work as symbols. As symbols, the relationships between these characters form a coherent structure in the film’s argument’s about good and evil.
The heart of the film is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted, and the blurred boundaries of that relationship. It is here that Lecktor comes into play. A slightly different version of the infamous Hannibal Lecter, Lecktor’s role is to symbolise pure evil. Graham is a symbol of humanity that is compromised by its connection with evil. The killer Dollarhyde is a symbol of crazed, confused evil mitigated by a scrap of humanity. The relationship these characters have to Lecktor is symbolic of their relationship to their own internal evil. Both try to utilise that relationship, and neither get precisely what they want out of it. Graham’s attempts to understand a killer’s mindset while staying detached do not quite work for him. The killer’s awkward attempt to bond with Lecktor through letters never truly comes to fruition. Lecktor is representative of an extreme.
As a symbol, the character of Hannibal Lecter can be used to make a statement on the nature of evil. In the Silence of the Lambs he is used to say that evil might have a superficial charm that disguises utter horror. In the NBC series Hannibal he is used to say that evil is attractive, destructive and destroys those it attracts. Manhunter’s statement on evil is that it is simply nasty. Brian Cox plays Lecktor as fast-talking, obnoxious, mean-spirited and petty. Manhunter has no interest whatsoever in the attraction of evil. It is humanity that is attractive.
A major element in the film’s exploration of its themes is the killer’s humanity. Dollarhyde, played by Tom Noonan, is a uniquely disturbing character. Everything about him is presented as ‘off’ in some way: The crabbed way he uses his hands, his confused, strained expression when he talks, even his overly loud clothing. Coupled with his terrible violence, he embodies eerie, unsettling and utterly dangerous psychosis. Unlike the novel, the film does not attempt to get at the root of his insanity. We are given hints at fantasies of power and masculinity, at some twisted idea of love, but these fantasies are not truly made clear. We are not meant to understand his insanity, but to be frightened of it. Having set up Dollarhyde in this way, the film then shows him falling in love. The romantic sub-plot, while a little rushed, serves a very deliberate purpose; It shows us a tragedy. Dollarhyde’s sudden romance with his blind girlfriend Reba (Joan Allen) provides him with love and acceptance. But he is too insane to process it. During his love scenes, the film’s striking visuals linger on Dollarhyde’s tortured face. He is emotionally overwhelmed, bewildered, powerless before the warmth and acceptance being offered him. Worse, romance is not sustainable for someone like this. At the first flash of jealously he reverts to violence. Love is not presented redemptive in this context; it is presented as part of the killers’ nature. It is an indelible, troubling and largely useless facet of his character that makes him both human and tragic.
While Dollarhyde represents a monster mitigated by humanity, Graham represents the other side of the coin. He is the embodiment of humanity, but a humanity that is compromised and troubled. The film is seen primarily through his eyes, the camerawork and visuals mirroring his internal processes. Initially, Graham is surrounded with images of the quiet, humble family life he leads before being taken out of retirement. This life is gently romanticised, the most beautiful cinematography in the film being devoted to Graham’s scenes with his wife. However, this idyllic life is corrupted and disturbed by the investigation. The choice to investigate puts strain on Graham’s marriage upsets his son and eventually puts the whole family in danger. These external problems reflect the internal problems going on in Grahams’ psyche. He cannot help being affected and damaged by the work he does. A psychological relationship with evil, as symbolised by Lecktor, is necessary to the way he works. This is a corrupting relationship. Because of the semantics of the film, a confrontation with the killer is inevitable. When this confrontation happens, Graham does not escape mentally or physically unscathed, in keeping with the film’s themes.
Graham’s problems stem from a dilemma. This is the dilemma that is presented by the existence of evil: do you deal with it and take inevitable damage? Or do you retreat and try to preserve your own innocence? The answer Manhunter presents us with is: Retreat is not really an option. Graham cannot turn away from the crimes he is presented with, because his humanity will not let him. There is a price to not turning away, because in the semantics of Manhunter, contact brings corruption.
In the end, Manhunter is about the spectrum of good and evil, and the tragedies inherent in that spectrum. Graham’s tragedy is the tragedy of compromised integrity. Dollarhyde’s tragedy is the tragedy of largely corrupted humanity, craving love but unable to sustain it. We are asked to consider both of these tragedies, and the way they relate to true evil. The conclusion of Manhunter’s exploration of its themes is: contact with evil is inevitable, damage is inevitable, but integrity can still be preserved. Graham emerges triumphant in the end, scarred but whole. The price of contact is not too high.