Hannibal Lecter, that most discriminating of epicurean psychopaths, has been taken to the people—and the people love him.
In the most unlikely confluence of pop culture and bloodlust since the XFL, Hannibal—the sequel to the Academy Award-sweeping 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs—just made about $60 million in its opening weekend. That’s more than the next 15 films combined (!) and the best February opening in history.
It’s a powerful testament to a character who’s become indelible in our minds. Lecter was on screen for only 27 minutes in The Silence of the Lambs, yet Anthony Hopkins’ performance—and the lingering aroma of menace he left on the entire film—made Hannibal the Cannibal one of the last decade’s most memorable movie creations.
Though Lecter wasn’t the main character in Silence, he was the main attraction in director Jonathan Demme’s frightfully direct film version of Thomas Harris’ novel. When he wasn’t on screen, the psychologist with a taste for human livers still assumed mythic proportions of evil that proved, well, delicious.
By contrast, director Ridley Scott’s Hannibal is all about the demented doctor. Hopkins’ bone-dry menace takes center stage in this story, set 10 years after nervous FBI agent Clarice Starling used Lecter’s help to capture a serial killer, while Lecter escaped from his own captors.
Lecter has been in Italy, where he’s up for a library curating job that opened up when the incumbent mysteriously disappeared. Starling, now a world-weary FBI veteran played by Julianne Moore (Jodie Foster dropped out of the sequel, as did Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally), gets involved in a sting operation that turns really ugly, while Lecter has problems of his own with an ambitious Italian cop (Giancarlo Giannini). Needless to say, their paths will soon intersect.
Hannibal is almost religiously faithful to its source novel (with the notable exception of the ending), so any judgment on the movie’s storytelling is an evaluation of Harris’ plotting abilities. Hannibal is entertaining as a rudimentary thriller, with Scott’s flowery and steely visual compositions giving Lecter a larger-than-life setting, the better to accentuate the mythical figure he seems to have become in the public mind.
And that’s really all there is here, despite a myriad of subplots around a vengeful, hideously deformed billionaire (Gary Oldman) who survived Lecter’s attentions. Hannibal is an interesting little thriller, but nothing more.
There’s not enough of a grand scheme, no tremendous obstacle for Hannibal to overcome that would truly surprise and intrigue us. There’s never a moment’s doubt that our antihero will reign triumphant for another day, even when the filmmakers mercifully steer away from Harris’ ludicrous ending to the novel.
Starling is the most superfluous character in the film. In a clash of two monumental evils, she becomes the harping, impotent voice of law and order. Lecter and Verger are far beyond caring about such matters, and Starling becomes little more than a distraction. Moore is languid and compellingly world-weary where Foster was uptight, but it makes little difference against Hopkins’ star power.
Demme’s strength was in leaving so much to the imagination. Scott has never been into suggestion or implication. He’d much rather ram things down your throat—and he and Hopkins do it at every opportunity in Hannibal. To enter Lecter’s underground cell in The Silence of the Lambs was to visit the interior of his mind; Hannibal, by contrast, is all about exteriors, and it’s just not as satisfying.
What’s most surprising about the grisly, much-hyped climax is the intense repugnance it’s generating, with some critics even calling it the grossest thing they’ve ever seen on-screen. It’s not even close—in fact, it has a reflexive amount of sicko humor that deadens some of the impact. It’s just another example of giving the public what they want—more Lecter perpetrating more Grand Guignol gore.
Those who see Lecter as a crass villain camouflaged by a layer of civility simply don’t want to acknowledge what he represents. Stephen King, in a glowing review of the novel Hannibal, called Lecter “a Count Dracula for the computer-and-cell-phone era,” and he’s not far wrong. With the same theatricality Christian Bale captured in American Psycho, the Lecter in Hannibal is the personification of the civilized sicko in us all.
Starling postulates that Lecter kills because society fails to live up to his high expectations. In the same way, Hannibal’s failing is only that it fails to capture all the limitless possibilities an evil creation such as Lecter stirs in the darkness of our own minds.
Hannibal (R) HH1/2 Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman.