The year of 1995 is my favorite year in film giving us so many beloved favorites of mine such as Lord of Illusions, The Usual Suspects, Seven, In The Mouth of Madness, GoldenEye, The Prophecy, Strange Days, and more. This year also gave us a brilliant union of powerhouse talents when Michael Mann brought together screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. While I consider Manhunter my favorite, and The Insider to be Mann’s best film, I cannot deny that Heat is a crime saga masterpiece. It is finally Michael Mann refined and matured to a breath-taking level developing his signature concepts to perfection. I can think of no more appropriate film to hold the honor of the 200th review on Forever Cinematic than Heat.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a master thief who lives by the simple discipline of “have nothing in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the “heat” around the corner.” His crew of career criminals is a high-tech outfit pulling off professional jobs that impress even the likes of Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). But Hanna, a man driven through life only by his work, becomes obsessed, at the expense of his private life, with bringing McCauley down. As McCauley’s crew prepare for the score of a lifetime, and Hanna’s team tries to bring him in, the two find that they are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives. Ultimately, they find themselves challenged by the greatest minds on the opposite side of the law that either one has ever encountered. With this much heat, the streets of Los Angeles are ready to sizzle and explode!
Heat is filled with excellent performances from everyone involved that it’s hard not to touch upon most of them. Firstly, I am engrossed by the dynamic between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. Hanna is a man whose life is wholly dedicated to his job, and thus, his home life is a disaster with multiple divorces to show for it. Meanwhile, McCauley has his life in control as he takes precision high line scores, but lives a disparate life of bare necessities allowing himself no attachments he cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if circumstances require it. Thus, despite these men being on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves in a near symbiotic relationship which fuels the compulsions of their lives. They are both driven by their jobs being out there on the streets in the middle of danger, and everything else in their lives is sacrificed for that. All they are is what they’re going after. That’s what fuels their existences, and Heat is all about that electrifying synergy.
Al Pacino has always been known as a passionate, charismatic actor, and Vincent Hanna surely has that energetic, sharp edge which makes him immensely entertaining here. However, it is the more subtle aspects of the performance that are where the real juice is. You see the razor sharp mind of Hanna when he arrives on the armored car robbery scene. He sees it, absorbs it, and hits all the marks deconstructing every detail of the crime. He doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t overlook or dismiss anything. You see the proficiency of Neil McCauley and how his crew operates, and then, you see Hanna and his team operate on that same exact level only on the opposite side of that coin. Yet, the depth of Hanna comes to the surface when Vincent converses with his wife, Justine. The weariness and ugliness of his job forces an emotional rift between them, and Pacino’s performance reflects the inner angst and emotional toll that it wreaks on Hanna. These things do affect him, but he never becomes a jaded, pessimistic, desensitized person. Al Pacino absorbs all of that into a subtle and complex performance that energizes the screen.
And delivering a performance on an equal level of weight and intelligence is Robert De Niro. He’s entirely formidable making Neil McCauley a very serious and definitive threat to everyone who opposes him. De Niro has a serious, hard edged presence that dominates the screen, and every move, every word, every course of action he makes is efficient. There’s a full immersion into the character in all his nuances and textures. Sometimes, a great performance is seen in raw emotion, but other times, it’s all in the subtle complexities. That is what De Niro give us here showing the versatile diversity of this character from cold, hard criminal to the loyal, caring friend and lover. Despite being the antagonist in the story, we see a real heart when Neil becomes involved with Eady. It’s takes a masterful actor and filmmaker to take a character like McCauley who will sanction and be entirely sociopathic about the murder of innocent people, and do something so human with him to where you genuinely feel his depth of heart. Surely, that’s nothing you would want translated into reality, but in a fictional narrative, it provides a captivating dimensionality that Robert De Niro captures with pitch perfect substance.
Val Kilmer was really in his peak at this time after his stunning turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. Thus, he was filming Heat concurrently with Batman Forever, really capitalizing on two excellent opportunities. Here, his role might be overlooked by the presence of Pacino and De Niro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t top notch. Chris Shiherlis proves to be a really intense character with his gambling addiction and marital strives, and Kilmer really absorbs the weary heart of Chris deeply into his performance. Despite infidelities on the part of Chris and his wife Charlene, portrayed tremendously by Ashley Judd, their final shared moment strikes deep within the heart to show just how much they both truly loved one another, but their marriage was never built to last. Kilmer hits all the marks to make this character standout solidly alongside De Niro, and to a lesser extent, Tom Sizemore does the same as the more action junkie sociopath Michael Cheritto. There’s a real strong brotherhood between Neil and Chris that shows through shiningly, and that relationship brings a lot of dimension to both characters.
I’m fascinated by the chain reaction of events here which create numerous exciting plot turns. Essentially, Waingro is the key cog who sets everything in motion. Without him going off the handle and facilitating the triple homicide, Vincent Hanna likely would not have been as dogged to track down McCauley and his crew. He’d be intrigued by the precision professionals, but it would just be another robbery. Then, Waingro betrays McCauley to his enemies, forcing the bank heist to turn into a violent, deadly shootout and propelling McCauley to make the irrational decision to go after him instead of escaping free and clear. Waingro turns the tide of the story at pivotal moments because he is a wild card with no loyalty to anyone but his own base, primal impulses. Furthermore, Kevin Gage is perfect in this role making for a wholly convincing hardened ex-convict sociopath who is dreadfully frightening and intimidating. It’s sadly poetic that less than a decade later he would become a federal convict for cultivating medicinal marijuana.
The other intriguing quality of Heat are the women. Michael Mann always makes the affectionate, strong women of his films vitally important to the arcs and stories of the male leads, and never objectifies them. The significant others of Hanna, McCauley, and Shiherlis are all passionate, loving women who desire a stable life. Justine Hanna grapples with Vincent’s internalized angst from the horrors he sees out on those streets, and just wants a husband who opens up to her instead of being distant, closed off, and vacant in their marriage. She wants a marriage with love not ragged leftovers of a man who drifts through their lives empty. Eady, portrayed by Amy Brenneman, is the most innocent of them all existing entirely outside the world of cops and criminals. She’s a simple, honest, warm person that unexpectedly opens up Neil’s world and gives him something to be affectionate about. For a man who lives with no attachments of any kind, it’s finally someone in his life that makes him care to have a life. Charlene, however, is the real gold for me as Ashley Judd is confident, heartbreaking and truly empathic as Chris’ wife. As I said, there is a deep down, genuine love between Chris and Charlene, but there’s so much addictive and combative garbage in the way that it was destined to crumble. For me, the Shiherlis dynamic is the most complex and substantive one of the film because of that real quality of conflict and adoration between them.
Without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is a remarkable cinematographer, and he does an excellent, stunning job with Heat. He composes so many carefully selected shots which tell a very visual story that holds weight. Just as Mann had fully refined and developed his artistic sensibilities so had Spinotti making this a very sophisticated looking and composed picture. There are pure moments of inspired artistry creating a masterful canvas that this story is told upon. This is also a film that feels very engrained and engrossed in the fiber of Los Angeles because of the visual vibe. Shots of the skyline in hazy daylight or glowing nighttime neo noir create that great backdrop that has substance and life.
Upon this watch of the movie, I picked up far more on Elliott Goldenthal’s amazingly original and pulsating score. A lot of what he does are subtle textures and melodies that nicely underscore various scenes. His score doesn’t fight for dominance in the audio mix. It complements everything that Mann is doing with the emotion, characters, and story. At times, Goldenthal’s score can be very powerful and striking such as the moment where Chris and Charlene are forced to abandon each other because of the police stakeout. The emotional pain swells into the score in a haunting swirl. Then, there’s the parting phone call between Neil and Nate that reflects the sorrowful feeling of two people, best of friends, saying goodbye for the final time, and Goldenthal’s score hits that mark so beautifully. Every single moment is so perfectly punctuated, and should be considered amongst his best work. Additionally, the two tracks by Moby are beautiful, superb, innovative tracks that saturate the power of their respective scenes, most notably being the ending with “God Moving Over The Face of The Waters.”
Of course, the big, electrifying selling point of this film was having two of America’s most celebrated actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, collide in all their glory. That would not be complete without the excellent diner scene where Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley have a very probing conversation. The very interesting quality of that scene is that this is the only point in time where these two men are able to be entirely open, honest, and reveal their inner workings. They are more intimately connected with each other than with anyone else in their lives. Again, the subtle performances of depth and honesty make this the absolute nexus of this entire film. Heat was previously made as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown by Michael Mann, and when you watch this scene performed by very second rate, stiff or hollow actors with almost identical dialogue, you realize the gold standard quality of Pacino and De Niro. In their hands, Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are brilliantly fleshed out and fascinating characters, and this is the scene that shows them stripped down. They show what haunts them and what drives them. There is no pretense between these men, and they realize that they are very similar despite being the flip side of each other. These are the only two people alike in this world of Michael Mann’s film that truly, undeniably understand one another. Furthermore, this scene is entirely integral to how the film’s climax unfolds.
Firstly, that shootout in the streets of downtown Los Angeles is one of the most ear-blistering sonic experiences ever, and that’s coming from a heavy metal fan. Michael Mann had considered using post-production sound effects for this, but realized that the realistic production audio created the true power and impact he wanted. It conveys the violent magnitude of real life gunfire and enhanced the danger of this sequence exponentially. The precision of every tactic is true to how Michael Mann approached his films. He made sure that every detail was accurate to life, and that mentality makes his films far more interesting to witness than the more over-the-top action sequences we get in the big, fun blockbusters.
The climax of Heat narrows everything down to what the whole film has been about at its core – Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. These two men, who exist in a world separated from the mainstream of society and defined by its own rules, are now pitted against one another in an electrifying, tense, and suspenseful cat and mouse sequence that is absolutely pitch perfect, and showcases the unequivocal skill of Michael Mann. The moment where McCauley sees Hanna just as he is to ride off with Eady is beautiful, painful, and eloquent. Neil invokes his “thirty seconds flat” rule turning away from Eady for his own survival, and the ensuing chase towards LAX is wonderfully and smartly plotted. The climactic moment is excellent and poetic. Then, after it’s all over, these two men are bonded together in a strikingly profound moment that ends the film on an astonishing stroke of pure brilliance.
I had always taken Heat for granted as that great crime saga pinnacle for Michael Mann, but until now, I never peered deeply enough into it to see the subtle brilliance of it. Many of his films are easier to see the inspired breadth and depth, but Heat has so many fine brush strokes of detail, interwoven threads, and subtext that only a real immersion into it made me absorb it all. This is truly a brilliantly written, directed, and acted film that did not get the recognition it deserved during awards season. Michael Mann himself received no nominations for his screenplay or directing, and Pacino, De Niro, or Kilmer received no acting award nominations either. It’s amazing to me that so many incredible, mold breaking, and standard setting films were released this year, and those I hold in highest regard barely got any recognition from any major awards organizations. This is why I find it hard to put much weight into these organizations because they’d rather nominate a movie about a talking animatronic pig over brilliant masterpieces like Heat, Strange Days, The Usual Suspects, or Seven for Best Picture or Best Director. Today, nobody talks about Babe, but people still endlessly praise those others films because they launched careers, took stunning risks, set new standards, and blew peoples’ minds. And when Michael Mann finally got his just nominations, he didn’t win a single one for what no one will ever be able to tell me wasn’t the best movie released in the year 1999 – The Insider. However, for the next review, I go back to the beginning of Michael Mann’s feature film career with Thief.
I’ve really liked this film ever since its theatrical release. It didn’t get good reviews, and was a bomb taking in only $17 million out of its $25 million budget. It continues to show me that while I may love erotic thrillers, they are rarely marketable to a mass audience. However, the sexual aspects of this film are a backdrop for what I view as a fairly solid twisting thriller. What engages me about Deception are the performances of its leads in Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams, and the rich, stunning neo noir cinematography by Danté Spinotti. The latter is no surprise as he has shot many Michael Mann films including Manhunter and Heat. I find Deception to be an intriguing thriller that is heavily aided by that striking visual atmosphere, and some smart directing from Marcel Langenegger.
Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an auditor in Manhattan, moving from office to office checking the books of various companies. While working late, a smooth, well-dressed lawyer named Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) chats Jonathan up, offers him a joint, and soon they’re pals. Jonathan is a very lowly, modest man, but Wyatt soon opens him up to a world of pleasurable desires and sexual confidence. When their cell phones are accidentally swapped, Jonathan answers Wyatt’s phone to a series of women asking if he’s free tonight. He soon discovers it’s a sex club where busy, powerful people meet each other anonymously in hotels for discrete encounters. However, he fully breaks all the rules when he falls for one of the club members, whom he knows only as “S” (Michelle Williams), whom he’s also seen on a subway. Yet, during an intimate night out, she goes missing, patterns emerge, and Jonathan faces demands involving violence, murder, treachery, and a large sum of money.
An excellent neo noir tone of mystery and isolation is struck right from the beginning with the quiet and moody opening title sequence. It’s just Jonathan sitting in a conference room, alone, late at night, but the vibe just sinks in very deeply to establish his isolated nature. He’s isolated from the world around him, always removed from the activity of the offices he’s working at, and has no real social life to speak of. The film is very regularly set in at nighttime inside clubs, hotels, offices, taxicabs, and elsewhere allowing for that dark, subversive tone to seep in. However, even the daytime scenes have a certain drained quality that maintain that atmosphere. The visual tone eases up just enough in those moments allowing you to not get bogged down by the visual darkness. What we get, overall, is a multi-toned film that moves from that lonely isolation to a lively and exciting world that is full of mysterious passion, but then, segues into a very heartfelt romantic connection that becomes the emotionally motivating element of the story. From there, it delves fully into the tense and threatening first, main twist of the film where our villain reveals his true colors.
Within only fifteen minutes, the film establishes a strong relationship between Jonathan and Wyatt. It hits all the right beats fleshing out their personalities with quick, substantive exchanges, and showing us how Wyatt just pushes Jonathan out far enough to take some chances. He opens Jonathan’s mind to being outgoing and perceiving the pleasures that one can indulge in, when the opportunities arise. This then sets Jonathan off on his own seductive, sexually charged encounters that really liven up his life. The sex and nudity are never raunchy. Everything has a beauty, vigor, and sensual quality that is very elegant and classy. We are given context for this anonymous sex club as it is something for the excessively busy successful person to gain “intimacy without intricacy,” as Charlotte Ramplings’ Wall Street Belle states to Jonathan. Still, for someone like Maggie Q’s Tina, there’s a compulsion to the danger of being with someone mysterious and anonymous. It has an attraction and outlet for almost anyone, and for Jonathan, it builds a more confident man. However, as I said, the erotic elements are merely a backdrop, a facilitating plot element that surrounds the film, but never dominates it. They tie directly back into the plot regularly, and the sex scenes are never gratuitous. They all serve a purpose towards the development of the story or characters. Most erotic thrillers use sex scenes as frivolously as many lower grade action films use action sequences. When they have relevance to the story, they work, but when they are just there to fill the skin quota, that’s when you’ve got a late night Skinemax flick. Deception surely and thankfully fits into the former category.
Furthermore, there is nothing wasted in the run time of this film. The pace is tight with an even rhythm and stellar editing. The plot develops very organically, and progresses without a hitch. It’s never too brisk to sacrifice character, but never lags at the cost of the story. Every aspect of the characters and plot fit in snugly, and propel the narrative forward in every scene. The filmmakers knew how far to weave their plot threads, and never stretched them out or rushed through anything. It’s all evenly balanced to achieve the right pace. The story is rather lean, and maybe some would prefer a little more proverbial meat on the bone of the script. However, it really didn’t require or demand more. What we are given works very well giving us enough substance to make this a full narrative, and avoiding any over complicated indulgences or dragged out sections of the film. We are given a few well placed twists that are well earned, and more importantly, are setup with care and intelligence. The little seeds of knowledge are laid out here and there to make the deceptions solid and convincing. All the qualities of the narrative flow together very smoothly and smartly. The second half of the film shows Jonathan’s development as he has the confidence to take action against Wyatt, and become a more capable protagonist when under pressure. I also think the development of the romantic relationship between Jonathan and S is done beautifully, and brings a warm levity to the right parts of the film. This really sets the film apart from other seductive thrillers as they rarely feature a genuinely decent and charming romantic storyline. Ultimately, it is this element that the film is most concerned with, and does continue to make it a point of importance for the characters.
Ewan McGregor is an actor that I have a true fondness for. While I haven’t seen many of his movies, I do find him an exceptional talent who always shows dedication and enthusiasm for his work. As Jonathan McQuarry, he demonstrates a very modest quality. He’s clearly a man of humble upbringings that’s never been adventurous or daring. His new sexual experiences do energize him, but don’t taint the man he is underneath. He matures into a fuller person not held back by his old timid hesitations, but never loses the decency and heart that define him. When he meets and gets to know S, he is genuinely enamored by her in a touching, heartfelt way. McGregor embodies these endearing qualities authentically and with all the kind-hearted charm possible. There’s nothing disingenuous about his performance. It all comes straight from the heart, and when Jonathan’s forced into the more adversarial aspects of the film, the tension and fearful weight of the plot are carried wonderfully by him. He makes for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.
I am also highly impressed by Hugh Jackman here, as I usually am. He’s also an actor I believe has incredible talent, and he really sinks his teeth into this role. He starts out as a somewhat charming individual who enjoys indulging in all the lustful pleasures of life. He’s charismatic and quite the arrogant jackass, but he’s able to ensnare Jonathan out of his shell with temptations of new, daring experiences. Despite Wyatt’s abrasive ego, you are able to accept him as an intriguing instigator of excitement in Jonathan’s life. Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen Jackman portray a full-on villain before, but he is intensely intimidating as one here. His manipulative turn later in the film is dark and devilish. There’s enough mystery about his character to make him threatening, but when you find out what he is capable of, that only backs up and enhances the severe, frightening qualities of Jackman’s character and performance. Overall, I think he relished playing every facet of this character, and it really shows through while never betraying the grounded weight of the film. Being a producer on the movie I’m sure only benefitted the quality of his on-screen work.
Michelle Williams puts on a beautiful performance, reflecting her own gorgeous physical beauty. She brings out a warm, soulful depth of heart to S. She just glows on screen with her bright smile and sweet presence. She also presents a sexually confident woman who is sensual and seductive, but not aggressive. Williams has a sparkling, heartfelt chemistry with Ewan McGregor that is the shining quality of this film. They play off each other with such genuine loving emotion that you truly feel how special this is for both characters. She is able to convey a rich array of emotions that really forge a connection with the audience in relation to Jonathan. She is a vibrant ray of light that gives this film an endearing emotional weight that we are regularly reminded of, and really has resonance in the end.
The score was done by Ramin Djawadi, who also later scored the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and he is amazingly consistent in his style and quality. As I mentioned in my Safe House review, his compositions are very evocative of the scores heard in many Michael Mann films such as Collateral. Meshed with Spinotti’s cinematography, that couldn’t have created a more desirable result for me. Djawadi does an impeccable job layering in tension, suspense, and an alluring, elegant mystique to the film. It’s just a work of excellence, in my view, and I’m glad to experience his work regularly on the TV series Person of Interest. He puts so much depth and lush sensuality into the Deception score, and I highly recommend checking out the soundtrack release.
Deception was partially shot on digital video giving a bold, clear visual quality to all these dark environments, and this film pushes the visual darkness to a new, deep level. The strip club scene early on has rich, pristine colors. Yet, other scenes are more muted mostly utilizing soft greens and ambers to evoke a very inviting visual mood. Danté Spinotti’s cinematography just makes such gorgeous use of color, as he’s been doing since Manhunter, and his camera work and compositions are stunningly beautiful. This man makes art out of every frame using light, shadow, movement, and depth of field to masterful extent and detail. The Chinatown sequence is a special favorite of mine that motivated me to visit Chicago’s Chinatown shortly after the film’s release. The Chinese architecture and visual culture really creates a romantic mystique for Jonathan and S’s most engaging encounter. Deception has a visual style that really is a feast and a pleasure for my eyes. It sets my artistic filmmaking imagination on fire. Now, I will admit that the first few times I saw the movie, the scenes in Spain at the end left me wanting from a visual standpoint. The rest of the movie was so rich with seductive atmosphere and shadowy moodiness that the soft, muted quality of the daytime scenes in Spain didn’t do much for me.
The ending in general, story wise, left me a bit unsatisfied for a while as well. I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that the film deserved a stronger, more intense pay-off. It could’ve used a more personal and emotionally charged comeuppance in light of everything that Jackman’s character had done. On early viewings, it did lack an especially impactful punctuation to that aspect of the story. Ultimately, it’s focused on the relationship between Jonathan and S, and I can surely accept that as a vital part of the story. I just felt that the ending we got just didn’t have as much resonance as I would have wanted between McGregor and Jackman. I’m not sure what that resolution would be, but it seemed like it needed a little more build up and pay-off. Of course, on repeated viewings, I have been able to easily accept it by way of familiarity. I still would prefer a stronger resolution to the adversarial conflict of the film, but I can enjoy the film quite well as it is today.
Regardless of this, I still feel that screenwriter Mark Bomback, along with creative input by director Marcel Langenegger, put together a very well crafted and sharply written script. The characters are fully developed and vibrantly inhabit this world and the story, and the plot is tightly wrapped around them. I think the character of Jonathan McQuarry has a wonderful arc that allows him to fully break free of his meek shell, and into a bright world of possibilities. Yet, he has to trudge through a dangerous and seductive world to get there, but it’s an evolution that he earns. The deceptions that weave into the story are very cleverly threaded, and culminate in some chilling, intimidating moments that sell the danger Jonathan becomes trapped in. It’s surely not the greatest mystery of all time, but for someone that just cannot write a mystery to save his life, I have to commend someone when they achieve a rather intelligently written manipulative tale.
So, the big critics didn’t like it, and many didn’t care to give it a chance. I’m not saying it’s some unsung gem of cinema, but Deception is a fine film handled with care by a lot of exceptional filmmaking talents. I really like the narrative it tells, and the qualities of emotion and heart it focuses on in our loving leads. Unlike many dark, edgy, and dangerous thrillers, it doesn’t delve you into the gritty violence or erotic sleaze. It’s an elegantly made film enveloped in a very shadowy, sultry world of treachery and passion. If you have an appreciation for neo noir, I highly recommend this film for the gorgeous, brilliant cinematography alone. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and find beauty in, and being a major fan of crime thrillers, I’m very pleased to see this film go into some different directions and find something other than fractured souls and tragic crimes. Of course, that clearly means I’m going to have to review some more Michael Mann movies shortly.
In my view, there are psychological thrillers, and then, there is Manhunter. I have never seen another movie that gets so deep inside the psyches of its protagonist and antagonist as Manhunter does. Every element of filmmaking is used to envelop you into the psychological state of its characters, and done so with amazing depth and beauty. Adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon by writer and director Michael Mann in 1986, this is the best film featuring Hannibal Lecter that I have seen. I never grasped what everyone was so enthusiastic about over The Silence of the Lambs, and that was my sentiment years before I ever watched Manhunter. I have never watched the Brett Ratner helmed re-adaptation Red Dragon, and so, you will not find any comparison between the two here. I have plenty to explore in Manhunter alone. This is my favorite film from Michael Mann, and I am going to tell you why.
F.B.I. Agent and criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is drawn out of retirement by friend and partner Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to track down and capture a serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy.” He is named as such due to the peculiar bite marks taken off his slain victims. To reclaim the mindset needed to delve into the psyche of this new killer, who works on a lunar cycle, Graham must tap the mind of the psychopath he captured which led to his own retirement – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). Graham must come to see through the eyes of this enigmatic killer in order to anticipate his methods, motives, and actions. The psyches of both Graham and this killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), are eventually put into severe conflict even putting Graham’s wife and son into danger, but most importantly, Graham’s own sanity. If Will Graham can enter into the mind of a psychopath, can he ever come back?
This is a beautifully layered psychological film. It’s fascinating to see the process Michael Mann has Will Graham go through to absorb himself into the psyche of this killer. It’s a slow descent where Graham is trepidatious stepping back into this mindset, but once he’s delved in deep enough, it starts to influence his emotions and manipulate his actions. He’s gradually connecting with the psyche of Francis Dollarhyde, slowly putting more and more pieces of the puzzle together in his mind, and by the end, there is an obsessive impulse to destroy Dollarhyde so that Graham can simply be free of him. When Graham was hunting Hannibal Lecktor, he integrated Dr. Lecktor’s psyche so deep into his own that he had to be institutionalized to in order to be brought back to good mental health. It was a dark, terrible place for his thoughts to be that he is afraid to allow himself to go back there. However, in order to capture this new serial killer, he has no choice but to tap Lecktor’s mind to recapture that mindset.
Still, the real Will Graham remains beneath, but remains slightly detached from himself. Graham has heartfelt moments with his wife and son at various points in the film that allow the humanity to show through the darkness. These are brief reprieves from the troubling case at hand, but go a long way to show that Graham has not lost himself in this killer as he did with Lecktor. All of these fascinating facets of Will Graham are brilliantly brought to detailed, nuanced life by William Petersen. He deeply engulfed himself in this role so much that after production had wrapped, he couldn’t shake Will Graham from his head. He had to shave off his beard and dye his hair blonde just to shed the character fully. That’s an unsettling example of method acting. Petersen puts so much emotional and psychological intensity into this performance that it is mesmerizing and captivating. You can constantly see the emotional and intellectual gears moving in his head. Petersen’s rich facial nuances and intense eyes also perfectly display Will Graham’s conflict and development throughout the film. He leads this film with a wide breadth of weight and deep, amazing talent. He forges a finely detailed and dimensional character.
This might be a procedural crime thriller, but I find the psychological development of the plot to be richly exciting and fascinating. The physical evidence is an important cog in the process, and the detail and urgent context in which these procedures are displayed make them compelling. Michael Mann keeps them unfolding at a tight pace with sharp dialogue that quickly pushes the narrative forward. Of course, the investigation truly comes together through the psychological methods of Will Graham. Without Graham’s constant prodding and deconstruction of the mind of this serial killer, the pieces would never come together. While Lecktor is someone that Graham fears, he respects Lecktor’s intellect. Where someone else might discount or take offense to Lecktor’s manipulative or sickly unsettling perceptions, Graham understands the valuable insight. He knows there’s something more intuitive underneath Lecktor’s words. Still, how Graham reacts after his first meeting with Lecktor here, you see how disturbed he is allowing Lecktor into his mind at all.
I absolutely love Brain Cox’s subtle and subversive performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Where Anthony Hopkins would later be a little more obvious and deliberately creepy, Cox slowly gets in under your skin. He could be generally unassuming, but he can gradually deconstruct your mind right before your eyes. He’s immensely intelligent and intimidating by way of his psychological prowess. Yes, he is a psychopath, and certainly a sociopath. However, the scene where Lecktor calls the office of Dr. Bloom shows how naturally charming and charismatic he is, and that is very unsettling. Brian Cox based his performance on a real life serial killer. Such people are usually able to blend seamlessly into society, many as charming and unassuming individuals, and to see Cox bring that quality to this fascinating role adds further intriguing layers to Lecktor. While the character only has three scenes, he remains involved in the plot, and maintains a strong presence through much of the runtime. Overall, I believe the magnificently talented Brian Cox put in a masterful performance that chillingly supports the intelligence of this film.
The performance of Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde makes just as major of an impact as Petersen and Cox. His is a chilling portrayal of a fascinating and intimidating character. His generally soft spoken voice creates an unsettling presence. You know he is a frighteningly violent and lethal individual, and this restrained, subtle manner makes you fear for when that violent impulse is ultimately unleashed. Michael Mann chose to leave out aspects of the character from Thomas Harris’ novel such as the Red Dragon tattoo on his torso, of which scenes were filmed with it, and much of his back story. For Manhunter, this seems to truly work for the best. Instead, the first half of the film is used to build him up as an anonymous threat through Graham’s investigation and psychological profiling. When the film directly delves us into who Dollarhyde is, Noonan brings an incredible depth of emotion and internal pain to the role. Where Lecktor is a sociopath devoid of compassion, Dollarhyde has a wealth of emotional turmoil stemming from his distorted self-perception. Noonan’s performance reflects shame as Dollarhyde masks his face with his hands or sunglasses, and won’t allow the blind Reba to touch his face. He’s absorbed himself into this mangled self-identity that he resents those who he perceives as having the idealized life, such as the suburban nuclear family. This fuels his obsession as a serial killer. Tom Noonan brings such immense power to the emotional core of this sympathetic monster, and probably more than anyone else, makes this movie as powerful and effective as it is.
Chicago native actor Dennis Farina puts in a great and strong performance as Jack Crawford. It’s great to see how he showcases Crawford’s trust of Graham. He rarely questions any of what Graham says or believes, but when he does, it has a purpose. Crawford can’t fully understand the process that Will has to go through to do what he does, but he entirely respects it and understands the danger of him doing so. He essentially goes to Will Graham as a last resort. It’s also great seeing that Farina is able to keep up with Petersen’s intensity at times. Late in the film when time, as well as patience, has run short, both Crawford and Graham are jumping down each other’s throats. Crawford’s accepting defeat this time out, but Graham’s gone too far to accept that at all. Still, you see the loyalty and faith return in Farina’s performance as Graham begins to puts the final pieces together. I like the compassion and concern in his performance as Crawford tries to hold to his word of keeping Will as far away from danger as possible up until the last minute. He wants this case closed and this killer captured, but not at the expense of his friend’s safety and sanity.
Stephen Lang does an excellent job as the sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. He’s a great antagonist for Graham since Lounds only cares about his headlines. He’s despicably charismatic, and a great character you’d love to hate. However, the terror Lang puts into his performance when confronted and abducted by Dollarhyde perfectly sells the imposing and unsettling presence of Dollarhyde. This once egotistical, arrogant grand standing man is reduced to a small man drowning in fear. That is both the culmination of the film’s build up to Francis Dollarhyde, and the impactful introduction of the character in the flesh. In my opinion, it couldn’t have been any more perfectly executed.
Kim Griest does a very solid job as Molly Graham, playing opposite William Petersen vey well. She puts in just the right amount of compassion and concern for Molly’s husband. She fears for his safety, and clearly wishes that Jack Crawford had never asked for Will’s help. It’s not a comfortable position for her to be in knowing what Lecktor had done to him previously. However, probably the least standout performance is Joan Allen as Reba, the blind woman who stimulates Dollarhyde’s affections. She does a decent job, but it feels like the character with the least substance and depth. She is given some strong scenes which intensify Dollarhyde’s character, such as with the sedated tiger, but there’s not much done with Reba to flesh her out like the richly dimensional characters around her. This is likely due to a factor of time, and that the film is focused on Dollarhyde in these instances.
Now, without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is one of the best cinematographers around, and he brought a great amount of beauty, intelligence, and grace to Manhunter. He creates some gorgeous, vibrant visuals that are awe inspiring. Also, scenes are composed and staged very smartly. It’s rarely just standard shots. Every shot seems to be handled with a purpose to symbolize a character’s mindset, relationship with someone else, or to establish mood and tone. In Graham and Lecktor’s first scene together, Mann and Spinotti compose it to where as Graham and Lecktor’s psyches begin to overlap and align, so do the shots of them. The scene begins with a regular composition with Graham on the left side of frame and Lecktor on the right, but eventually they are dead center in the frame looking dead-on towards the camera by the end. Both men reflect one another in this moment. The visuals of the film have numerous mirroring aspects, and evolving motifs which visualize the psychological states and connections of characters. There are a series of shots of Will Graham looking into mirrors, and each successive shot is more and more obscured until there is eventually no reflection seen to the audience. This shows Graham’s journey in finding and ultimately detaching from Dollarhyde’s psyche. Dollarhyde himself cannot even look at himself in a mirror due to his perception of how grossly disfigured he is. Graham can confront the monster within himself, but Dollarhyde cannot.
The use of steadicam is greatly on display here giving us a film of very fluid motion, reflecting the intensely focused mindsets of Graham and Dollarhyde. It’s very gorgeous cinematography. Yet, in the film’s climax, as Dollarhyde destabilizes, the film also becomes chaotic with jump cuts and a surreal frenetic style. This works amazingly well delving our protagonist and antagonist into an explosive conflict which will either destroy or free their respective psyches.
The use of color is also integral to the moods and emotions of the film. Blue tones reflect safety as the love scene between Will and Molly demonstrates. However, green punctuates a feeling of discovery as with Graham’s early wardrobe, or a subversive quality such as in the dark room scene with Reba and Dollarhyde. There are even splashes of green lighting in Dollarhyde’s home at times. In my own independent films, I have used color washes heavily to evoke certain moods and atmosphere, but it’s never been used with such deliberate purpose as in Manhunter.
In the process of writing this review, I ecstatically discovered the complete Manhunter soundtrack album on iTunes. I purchased it without a doubt, even though I already had a few of the songs from the film. No other film have I ever seen makes as impactful, integral use of its soundtrack as Manhunter. It’s all very atmospheric, ambient music from amazing, lesser known 1980s artists such as Shriekback, The Prime Movers, and Red 7. The Shriekback tracks are the most enveloping in the film’s deep haunting mood. “This Big Hush” punctuates the seductive and quietly powerful love scene between Reba and Francis. It’s the deepest insight into Francis’ soul that we get, and this song made the scene what it is. The score was composed by Michel Rubini and The Reds. It’s very synthesizer based which might seem typical of the 1980s, but it sets an overall ominous, mesmerizing, and dangerous tone that absorbs itself into every fiber of the film. Michael Mann employed Tangerine Dream to score Thief five years earlier which created a very sleek and beautiful soundscape of that noir crime thriller. Here, the atmospheric synth music is very much in the forefront creating a bold and intense experience. The soundtrack truly does follow in the style Mann had perfected on Miami Vice at the time using popular music along with striking visuals to tell an emotional and exciting story. However, I feel Manhunter takes it a to higher level due to the overall tone and deep psychological aspects of the story. The music takes the audience deep inside the emotions and psyches of the characters. I love the cue of “Graham’s Theme” which accompanies and accentuates Will Graham’s slow revelation of the final pieces of the puzzle. It is a brilliantly executed sequence. Furthermore, the film brilliantly uses Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to orchestrate the entire climax of the movie. It’s entirely edited and constructed around the various dramatic beats in that seventeen minute long jam. The organ section of the song creates a haunting Phantom of the Opera style mood until it and Will Graham crash back into full blown action. This is a score and soundtrack that simply blows my mind in how well executed and finely weaved into the fabric of the film.
This is undoubtedly one of Michael Mann’s absolute best films. It is very tightly crafted with a taut, suspenseful atmosphere. Manhunter is a deeply enveloping film utilizing all its aspects of sight and sound to create a thoroughly absorbing experience. The investigative aspects are given a rarely implemented psychological focus built upon some solid and sharp procedural elements. We are treated to a wealth of rich performances and fascinating characters. There’s a depth of detail to everything which comes out in those performances, and they are presented in very intriguing ways to keep an audience riveted with every moment.
Manhunter has been a curiosity on DVD. Four different cuts exist from both Anchor Bay and MGM. The original theatrical version was actually the last one to be released, and that was from MGM which they also put out on Blu Ray Disc. Anchor Bay released a two-disc set with both a video tape sourced director’s cut and a THX certified version billed as the theatrical cut, but contains some additional scenes and a few bits and pieces cutout. A “restored director’s cut” was later released by them which features a vast improvement in quality, but leaves out one scene from the first director’s cut between Will Graham and Dr. Chilton. It was likely cutout due to it not being shot very well. There’s no one version I wholly prefer over another since they all add in or leave out something I like from another cut, but as far as quality is concerned, the THX certified DVD from Anchor Bay has the best transfer. All other transfers have desaturated colors, are darker prints, and lack some sharpness. I did personally assemble what I called the “Definitive Cut” adding in almost all footage from various cuts of the film into one amalgamation for a complete experience. It’s just something for my own complete satisfaction of the film which I love so very much.
As I said, this is my favorite Michael Mann movie. Although, I do consider The Insider to be the best film he has ever made for very distinctly different but immensely admirable reasons. Manhunter really has been a major influence on me as a filmmaker. It was the main influence on my psychological noir thriller Dead of Night. I wanted to explore what would happen if a criminal profiler similar to Will Graham lost himself in his psychologically twisted work and went off the deep end by hunting down serial killers. There was a similarly themed episode of Miami Vice titled “Shadow in the Dark” that had Sonny Crockett delving into the disturbed mind of a crazed home invader that I also really love. However, nothing is as rich or as layered as Manhunter. Where The Silence of the Lambs seemed more focused on regular investigative work to lead to the capture of its serial killer, Manhunter is all about the psychological construction and deconstruction as the main cog in tracking down the killer. That is far more fascinating to me. Not to mention, Will Graham is a vastly more intriguing character to explore, in my eyes, than Clarice Starling. Graham is someone that’s been to some terrifyingly dark places, and has the capabilities to contend with Hannibal Lecter. He is the one who captured the cannibalistic doctor to begin with, even if it was at a troubling price. Simply everything in Manhunter appeals to my imagination, and I love that time has given the film the respect and praise it deserves. It wasn’t a successful release in 1986 for many reasons, and thus, is why The Silence of the Lambs was never handled as an actual sequel. I’m sure there are people who would be put off by the 1980s neon and pastel aesthetics of Manhunter today, but that’s no bother to me. I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Michael Mann showcased a very powerful vision with this film, more so than any other film I’ve seen from him. While his last two films – Miami Vice and Public Enemies – have shown a sharp decline in overall quality, his general body of work maintains him as one of my favorite and most influential filmmakers of all time.