The Silence of The Lambs (1991) didn’t just hit pop culture in the knee, it changed the way cinema treated horror fare by scoring the Academy’s most coveted prizes such as Best Picture, Best Director for Johnathan Demme, Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress for Jodie Foster, and Best Adapted Screenplay...
...Silence of the Lambs not only changed how we heard Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses”, it sent a message to the film industry to take thriller fare more seriously. Needless to say, producer Dino De Laurentiis had his work cut out for him when he decided to tackle Silence’s sequel Hannibal.
While Silence was released to overwhelmingly positive reviews, Hannibal was a mixed bag for moviegoers and reviews from critics were often harsh. In honor of its 20th anniversary this month, I recently revisited it to see how well it’s held up over time. In my mind, it has only gotten better with age and hindsight. This adaptation had the odds going against it the moment Demme and Foster left the project, but all was not lost. Hopkins was still onboard, and with an actress as respected and accomplished as Julianne Moore attached, paired with a visionary like Ridley Scott, it had more than a little potential behind it.
The film and 1999 novel of the same name, takes place 10 years after the events of Silence of the Lambs. The cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is on the run and hiding in Florence, Italy after escaping incarceration and making the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Meanwhile, FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling (Moore) is disgraced for a drug bust gone wrong. Soon after, one of Lecter’s surviving “victims”, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), reaches out to Starling to enlist her in capturing Dr. Lecter. Taking the case, Starling begins a cat and mouse chase for Lecter, who is himself in a race against Italy’s best, Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini). It doesn’t take long for all three pursuers to realize the doctor is playing an even deadlier game.
Any conversation on the film’s strengths has to begin with the cast. There are very few examples of the personification of evil that have taken as much of a hold in the zeitgeist as Anthony Hopkins’ spine-tinglingly unsettling portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Based on the Thomas Harris book series, Lecter has been portrayed wonderfully for years by powerhouses in the acting field. From Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) to the incredible Mads Mikkelsen in Bryan Fuller’s NBC Hannibal TV series. It can be argued, however, that Hopkins is in a league of his own. Even all these years later, his portrayal remains as terrifying as he ever was. The film and the screenplay do a great job in painting Lecter as both the prize for all parties and a devil on the shoulder. Providing clues to Clarice while mocking the authorities, it’s clear Hopkins has fun with the role and he absolutely chews the scenery. There are several standout scenes, but his performance seems to get the most praise in the final act. Hopkins plays the scene without any ambivalence to his cannibalistic actions and it’s truly a disturbing watch the first go round. But as disturbing as the meal is, you can’t turn away.
An antagonist is only as good as his protagonist, and Julianne Moore had a difficult task in front of her. While the comparisons to Foster are far too unfair, Moore does bring her own flavor to Clarice Starling. Foster was iconic in her “something to prove” attitude, but Moore brings a freshness to the role. Moore’s performance of a jaded and weathered Starling is wildly underappreciated. There are far more layers than people are willing to admit. While she was fighting in a male dominated world in the first film, here she brings a level of knowing her position in a losing battle when her superiors and peers constantly undermine her. To look into Moore’s eyes is to see a fire that, while close to burning out, is not going out without a fight. The feeling of a connection between her and Lecter as they navigate their cat and mouse game is much more pronounced in this film, even though they barely share the screen together until the third act.
Not to be outdone, Gary Oldman’s performance as child molester Mason Verger is deeply unsettling. Oldman is unrecognizable in the role. Verger is Hannibal Lecter’s “victim” of a psychedelic trip that resulted in paralysis and extreme disfiguration of the face. What is left is utterly terrifying. Buried from head to toe in prosthetics, Oldman masterfully uses the make-up to draw in and repel the audience all at once. His performance is fascinating to watch all the way through the film and remains a powerful standout of its own.
The cast is not the only powerhouse involved, however, and you can’t talk about Ridley Scott without mentioning his masterful visual eye. Scott displays flairs for portraying the beauty in the violence all through the picture. Rewatching the film in the 4K remaster, the colors and the production design just pop. Florence, Italy becomes as much a terrifying presence as Hopkins’ Lecter. The blues convey a level of coldness; the only colors with any vibrancy are the reds and the blood. It’s truly a sight to behold in 4K, almost akin to looking at a Francis Bacon painting. The best scenes to watch for Scott’s visuals are the Florence scenes with their modern-day Gothic horror atmosphere. The standout Florence scene is, of course, the disembowelment, perfectly executed in its gruesomeness. The mutilation of Mason Verger is another visual standout. Scott may have had different ambitions than Demme, but his direction of scenes and actors alike remains something special to watch 20 years later. He is clearly still a master of his craft after nearly 40 years in the industry.
For all its strengths in most other departments, the story itself feels lacking. The actors make the most of what they’re given, and the majority of the problems come from the common struggle of adapting source material. Thomas Harris’ Hannibal is a complicated text. Most of the main story deviations happen because of the real estate of a cinematic canvas and runtime, which means a lot of the more complex and challenging aspects of the novel are lost in the film. The biggest example of this is that we don’t see some of Clarice’s transformation. The novel takes the approach that Starling and Lecter are both sides of the same coin and are truly each other’s equals. While the film presents the equality between them, it isn’t able to go as deep into the relationship as the novel. The idea of Hannibal taking someone under his wing and showing them what it is to truly be free is terrifying in its own right. The film’s ending feels a bit rushed and like a bit of a letdown when it comes to resolving the chase. Instead of pursuing the cat and mouse aspect all the way through, we get grotesque cannibalistic gore. While we the audience are craving that, we need a compelling story to tie it together, otherwise it kind of leads nowhere.
Between Red Dragon (2002), NBC’s Hannibal, and CBS’ Clarice coming back in the public consciousness, the desire for a character as compelling as Hannibal Lecter is as insatiable as it ever has been. Hopkins is a force in this film. Moore is a welcome addition and makes Starling her own. Oldman is as unsettling to look at as he was when the film premiered. Scott’s Hannibal, while highly divisive, is still a wonder to behold. The incredible performances by the leads and striking cinematography cement this adaptation as something every horror fan should explore at least once. One might even say Hannibal has aged like a fine Chianti.
By Andres Gallego
Please consider joining us in celebrating Black History Month by donating to BlackLivesMatter.com