Red Dragon opens with an orchestra playing. One of the musicians fumbles a note and falters. The orchestra continues playing. The camera rises over the orchestra and pans down into the audience to show a familiar figure enjoying high culture. He winks at the musician again and the musician fumbles another note.
In the next scene a ponytailed Lecter is serving pieces of that same musician to his unsuspecting guests. It’s suspenseful, disturbing and yet without the excessive gore that sometimes characterized Hannibal. Red Dragon has its quota of horrific scenes, but the camera rarely lingers on the atrocities and doesn’t glorify them. And some of the movie’s most horrific scenes are implied by the character’s reactions to unseen material, like Lounds watching Dolarhyde’s slides.
Subtlety is not something you go into the movie except from Rush Hour’s Brett Ratner, yet the result is a movie that is a closer companion in mounting suspense, police procedurals and a battle of wit to Silence of the Lambs, rather than Hannibal, even serving as a very explicit prequel to it in a notable scene.
Like Lambs, it moves between ominous windy landscapes, lifeless greenish lit workplaces and the more ancient stone and wood habitats of the two killers. Dante Spinotti, the cinematographer on the original Manhunter, brings a more ambitious visual look to the movie without being garish and Ratner’s direction is formulaic, rarely venturing into the showy, even in the movie’s few action scenes. There are times when the movie lags, mainly during scenes with Graham’s family, but Ratner manages to keep some of the fairly unwieldy material moving along while maintaining the suspense.
But Red Dragon is more of an actor’s movie, than a director’s or writer’s movie. Chock full of talented actors like Hopkins, Ed Norton, Fiennes, Emily Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman; Red Dragon is really a collection of singular performances rattling around within what is now a fairly conventional narrative for a serial killer thriller. Even Harvey Keitel has a supporting role as Graham’s gruff but sympathetic boss.
The one unique thing that Red Dragon has to offer is Hannibal Lecter himself, who has since become a phenomenon, and so the movie makes sure that Lecter is on-screen even when he’s off-screen. And it is Dr. Lecter again, the sociopathic monster in a cage, rather than the somewhat humanized version we saw in Hannibal. The movie begins with him and ends with him and even when he isn’t on screen, his presence is still there. Anthony Hopkins doesn’t bring anything new to the role, but by now he has the character polished well enough so that Lecter’s grim jokes and mind-games roll out smoothly.
By contrast Fiennes as Dolarhyde is more a collection of awkward mannerism, than a personality. Fiennes is at his strongest portraying Dolarhyde’s human side as brought out in tender moments with Reba and at his weakest in portraying the Dragon. Unlike Hopkins, he’s never at home in the character. And he isn’t helped much by the movie’s decision to remove almost all the background on Dolarhyde aside from a brief Psychoesque introductory scene for the character, the movie’s credits which play over the now conventional Sevenish leafing through Dolarhyde’s scrapbook and Graham’s brief posthumous summation of Dolarhyde as ‘suffering years of abuse.’
Ed Norton’s performance is just as problematic. Physically he seems too immature for the part and is never convincing as a man tormented by the dark insights he has into the psyche of human monsters like Lecter and Dolarhyde . The choice to play Graham as a male counterpart to Clarice, as an unassuming and private man who is overshadowed by most of the movie’s personalities fails mainly because unlike Foster, Norton never displays the force of will to stand up to Lecter or anyone else. He barely manages to hold his own even in scenes with Keitel, let alone in the classic jailhouse scenes with Lecter.
Lecter taunts him but none of the taunts seem to register. The confrontations between the two never produce any real sparks, despite the two men’s bloody histories because like Fiennes, Norton seems to be sleepwalking through the movie and doesn’t display much in the way of emotion except when he’s fighting for his life. Where Foster was tightly leashed, Norton just seems laid back. It’s the wrong acting choice for the movie and it turns Graham into a creature of the plot who stumbles from one plot point to another without ever reaching any kind of self-awareness.
Meanwhile Emily Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman turn in crisp performances in supporting roles that end up being more memorable than the performances of either Fiennes or Norton. Hoffman inhabits every sleazy inch of Lound’s rumpled oily body and yet never lets him become cartoonish but maintains his humanity in the worst of his ordeal. Watson is not really breaking new ground here, but what with another actress might have been a disposable victim, her Reba is at once a shockingly fragile and strong person. She’s a plausible anchor to Dolarhyde’s own humanity and wonderfully real in every single scene, down to the last. Mary Louise Parker’s Molly though never registers as anything except the stereotypical agent’s worried wife, despite her significant role in the plot.
Red Dragon is hurt by Norton’s miscasting and the rather weak performances from Norton and Fiennes. Lecter is grimly entertaining, though the movie spends a bit too much time having him frighten Graham and sundry others by getting too close to the glass. It is a quite different film than Mann’s original Manhunter even restoring the novel’s original ending, nevertheless many of the ingredients that made Lambs a hit are there in Red Dragon and will likely appeal to the same audiences that loved it. Despite all its flaws, RD is still one of the better police procedurals in recent years and is easily superior to most similar thrillers.