With his novels Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs (and the subsequent films based on them), Thomas Harris created a villain for the ages in Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter. The character’s mass appeal seemed to send Harris off in a loopy direction, though. The third book, Hannibal, featured wild pig attacks and a conscious man having his brain eaten (mistakes that carried over to Ridley Scott’s movie version). I have not read the author’s most recent, Hannibal Rising, which charts the early days in Lecter’s life. Nor will I read it based on the big screen version, for which Harris wrote the screenplay. He has officially taken everything that was good and effective about the character and trashed it. Hannibal Rising is, plain and simple, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
The first sign that something is amiss comes in the film’s bizarre opening minutes, as young Hannibal sees his parents killed by debris when a military plane crashes into a Russian tank in their front yard. World War II is raging, winter hits hard, and some of the enemy soldiers hole up in the cabin when snow prevents them from moving forward. Starving and unable to find food, they resort to eating Hannibal’s little sister as he helplessly watches. Eventually he escapes their clutches and, as a teen (played from here on out by Gaspard Ulliel), winds up in a Russian orphanage. He escapes from there as well, making his way to Paris, where his uncle’s widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) teaches him martial arts. Later, they have a love affair, which is creepy since the woman is technically his aunt.
Hannibal soon enrolls in medical school, where he spends his days doing experiments on cadavers. He learns that those same soldiers who ate his sister are alive and in France. How’s that for a coincidence? Hannibal tracks them down one by one, administering a gruesome killing each time. That’s right – Hannibal Lecter is a man on a vengeance mission. Logic might suggest that there is no reason for him to take other victims beyond the soldiers. However, we know that he went on to become one of America’s most fearsome serial killers. Anyone looking for clues about how he ended up in the States – or why he extended his killings beyond his enemies – will be sorely disappointed by the film’s refusal to address those issues.
Hannibal Rising goes wrong on so many fronts that it’s hard to know where to start. The most obvious flaw is in the atrocious casting. Gaspard Ulliel has absolutely none of the charisma, danger, magnetism, or gravity of Anthony Hopkins (or, for that matter, Brian Cox, who played Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter). Ulliel tries to make evil-looking faces at the camera, but only succeeds in looking ridiculous. This is like “Hannibal Lecter 90210.” It is absolutely shocking to me that a major motion picture would go forward with an actor who is so completely, indefensibly wrong for the role. There’s nothing scary about the actor or his performance. In fact, he’s so unthreatening that you may feel the urge to giggle sometimes at his faux “menace.”
A less obvious, but still significant, sin of Hannibal Rising is that director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) has tried to make the movie all arty. The Silence of the Lambs was artful, but not arty, terrifying yet still intelligent. Conversely, there’s so much pretentiousness in Rising’s tone that it’s almost as if Webber thought it was gauche to make a movie that was actually scary. You wouldn’t think that a story about a serial killer who likes to eat his victims could be so pompous and boring, yet that’s exactly what it is. Although the film runs two hours, I literally felt like I watched it for two weeks.
It doesn’t help that, as a screenwriter, Harris has no penchant for dialogue. People in this movie talk incessantly, but their words sound meaningless. I remember that on the “Peanuts” cartoons, the adults always spoke with this indecipherable “wah wah wah” sound. That’s also how the people in this movie sounded to me. I wanted to shout at the screen: “Shut up and just eat someone already!”
The absolute biggest catastrophe is that Lecter is robbed of all his menace. Harris has actually given him a justification for his evil: he snapped after seeing his family killed and his sister eaten. In other words, Lecter is now somewhat sympathetic, and that’s death for the character. When you make Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter sympathetic, you totally rob him of his ability to be scary. What made him so horrifying in, say, The Silence of the Lambs was that his behavior seemed without cause. He was a brilliant, cultured doctor who, by the way, brutally murdered and ate innocent victims. By giving his actions a motive, Lecter suddenly seems like just another guy in need of intense therapy to heal his inner child.
Why did he have to be a trauma victim anyway? Most serial killers haven’t had something this traumatic in their background. Some kind of mental problem is usually what sets them on their path. Why couldn’t Lecter just be mentally deranged? Does there have to be a concrete “reason” for his evil? The story would be infinitesimally better – not to mention scarier – had his parents simply noticed that young Hannibal had an unexpected tendency toward cruelty (needless abuse of a younger sibling, perhaps) or maybe a penchant for torturing animals or drawing gruesome pictures. Then we could have jumped ahead to his medical school days, where the problems start to resurface again with more intensity. This approach would have seemed far more consistent with what we know of the character’s later years.
Put a different way, I just didn’t believe that the Hannibal Lecter we see here could possibly grow up to be the Lecter I saw in The Silence of the Lambs. This character is not as evil, not as cultured, not as insanely intellectual. He is a simpleton, a teenage version of Charles Bronson in Death Wish, acting out a basic revenge fantasy. It is hard to imagine a sequel (or prequel) getting things more wrong than Hannibal Rising does. This character means a lot to many people, myself included. In the past, Hannibal Lecter has both frightened and fascinated me. Now he’s just a sad shadow of his former cinematic glory, stuck in an unspeakably awful movie.
I need to go watch The Silence of the Lambs to get this bad taste out of my mouth.
(zero stars out of four)
Hannibal Rising is rated R for strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references. The running time is 2 hours.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Hannibal Rising
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