Do you remember noise canceling headphones? They were popular for a short while a few years ago, but it seems like they've gone out of style. Which makes sense, because I don't think they really worked. The theory was that they would figure out the frequency of an annoying background sound and then create a sound that was the opposite wavelength, and when the two met they would cancel each other out. However, in my experience adding that second wavelength just doubled the amount of noise - you could still hear every one of the background sounds, but you also had a layer of white noise that was being added on top.
Manhunter is a movie that has a similar problem. Manhunter is a thriller about three men who are all trying to hide their inner darkness behind a mask of normalcy, and to do so they all speak in affectless monotones, as if to suggest that none of them are very good at faking the emotions they don't really feel. In theory that's a good approach for a serial killer story, because one of the most chilling aspects of a true psychopath is that they can describe the horrific things they've done with a complete lack of passion - their lack of remorse really makes their crimes seem much, much worse. However, that approach doesn't really work in Manhunter, because none of the actors matches their dispassionate words with any of the little hints that would suggest their inner emptiness. There is no animal hunger in their eyes when they speak their lies. They don't ever let their inner turmoil sneak through by saying a few words wrong, or use their body language to suggest that underneath their bland facade there is real danger lurking. Their consistent lack of passion just gives the audience a sense that all of the characters are bored and listless, two adjectives that shouldn't be applicable to a thriller about serial killers.
The three men in question are Will Graham, an FBI agent who is well known for his ability to think like a killer; Hannibal Lecktor, an incarcerated cannibal; and Francis Dollarhyde, AKA the Tooth Fairy, a rampaging murderer who likes to put shards of glasses in his victims eyes so he can see his reflection in their face. (I suppose the nickname "The Eye Looker" was already taken, probably by an imaginary icon of childhood.) Manhunter starts with the FBI pulling Graham out of retirement to capture Dollarhyde, but his psychic detection skills have grown a little rusty while he was wasting away on a beach, so he needs Lecktor's help with getting inside Dollarhyde's mind. Unfortunately, he is the man who put Lecktor behind bars and Lecktor is also a devious son of a bitch, so Graham doesn't know if he can get Lecktor to help him in time or if he can trust any of the "help" that Lecktor offers him.
If this was just a movie about a tortured genius it would be easy for it to fake seriousness, or if it was just about the hunt for a perverted murderer it could easily be a fun thriller, but combining those aspects with a clairvoyant cannibal and then playing it straight is asking for trouble. Manhunter completely lacks the ability to juggle all those ideas at once. As I mentioned above, I think it's failure is mostly due to the actors, none of whom give particularly nuanced performances, but that's probably not entirely their fault. After all, all three of the leads are of a piece, which makes me think that they were all just following director Michael Mann's ill considered vision. He might have told them to underplay some of the more extreme parts of the story in the hopes that a more subdued tone would keep the film from being too over-the-top, but there's only so much you can do to ground a story about a tormented hero who is using a twisted killer to hunt an even more twisted killer, so the only thing that "subtlety" managed to accomplish was to strip the story of any sense of lurking menace.
Manhunter's failures are particularly frustrating because I've seen this same story be told in a much more entertaining fashion. Red Dragon, which is a remake of Manhunter from 2002, fixes a lot of it's mistakes, in large part because its cast was stocked with amazing actors who could bring real depth to their characters. The biggest change, of course, is having Anthony Hopkings play Lecter, because Hopkins is perhaps the only actor alive who can portray Lecter as an intimidating figure and not as a silly mixture of faux sophisticated tics and pseudo-menacing cliches. (For the record, if you're curious about why I've been spelling "Lecter" as "Lecktor" for this whole review it's because that's how Manhunter spells it. It's the only movie in the Lecter cannon that does so.)
Furthermore, the rest of the cast of Red Dragon is also great. Edward Norton has earned three Oscar nominations for playing tormented men so he definitely has the tools to take a stock character like Graham and bring him to life. Ralph Fiennes, who played Dollarhyde in Red Dragon, also played a Nazi in Schindlers List and Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, so he definitely knows how to portray evil on screen. Red Dragon even stacked it's little roles with amazing actors - Philip Seymour Hoffman, the king of the regrettable schlubs, was cast as a sleazy tabloid publisher and the emintently lovely Emily Watson played the blind woman that Dollarhyde is stalking. Red Dragon isn't perfect - it's basic story is still pretty goofy and it's direction is a bit frenetic - but those actors are all so good that they bring a level of sympathy and pathos to the proceedings that goes a long way towards redeeming it's faults.
Noise cancelling headphones didn't really do what they promised to do, but they at least still worked as headphones as long as you didn't turn on the noise cancelling feature. Unfortunately, you can't separate the weird performances from Manhunter as a whole - you can't really sit there and just enjoy Michael Mann's striking visual compositions when the bland actors keep interrupting his well framed images. (Mann has a lot of faults, but you gotta give him this: he really knows how to use neon to punch up a night shot.) The only way that Manhunter could have succeeded is if it's actors had managed to suggest two contradictory tones at once, but sadly they generally fail to get even the one tone across. They are not fake-normal-with-a-hint-of-real-malice, nor are they normal, nor are they malicious. They're mostly just... there, which is basically the last thing you want from a movie about the sort of psychos who aren't supposed to be all there.
Winner: The Cat