Michael Mann’s exceptional eye for action makes Manhunter a resounding adaptation of Hannibal Lecktor’s vicious crimes. Far removed from the spine-chilling brilliance of The Silence of the Lambs, instead offering a cat and mouse game that has similar tropes, but completely different consequences. Hunting down a serial killer known only as The Tooth Fairy, this mid-80s thriller follows the work of a recently retired detective, hauling himself back into the fray to finish up one last case. Using information fed to him by Lecktor, the man he put behind bars, Will Graham (William Petersen) tracks down various leads and red herrings to solve one last case before returning to his family and his home comforts.
As expected, Mann provides marvellous and engaging direction. His use of unmoving cameras captures the empty space around his central protagonists. Mann wants our focus turned on the bleak tones of the gruesome crimes of Lecktor, here played by Brian Cox. Presented well, with consistently great composition and camera angles that capture tense notions and sudden realisations, Manhunter has all the factors necessary to making a truly great crime thriller. Strong moments of detective work, mixed in with an ever-changing narrative thanks to Lecktor’s meddling momentum. What the film lacks in contemporary bells and whistles, it makes up for tremendously in Cox’s versatile brilliance.
There is a genuine argument here to be made for Cox rivalling the work of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs and its two sequels. Surprising me just as much as anyone, Cox is brutal, conniving and, crucially, represents Lecktor as a genius. A criminally insane mind, but one that has no ounce of humanity left in him. The weak link, though, is William Petersen, who provides a performance that gives ample detail, but nothing unique that defines Petersen as a unique draw. Not quite a bland protagonist, but one that doesn’t inspire nearly as many engaging moments as Cox or Dennis Farina, both of which seldom appear towards the final third.
Mann’s understanding of pacing is the crucial key to Manhunter. Splitting its time between competent performances and vicious killers, the motif of his horrible crimes shrouded in brilliance, Mann presents an engaging thriller. Cox is used sparingly, understandably so considering he’d be the best part of the film if featured more than a handful of times. Stealing the spotlight is not on the agenda for others, though, who come together and provide a fascinatingly strong adaptation of the infamous, fictional killer. Consistency is key, and Manhunter never lets up, bending its narrative as far as it can go, providing an ultimately rewarding time with a constant threat buried underneath its strong dialogue and marvellous performances.