Manhunter (1986)

William Petersen and Dennis Farina in the opening shot of Manhunter

Manhunter is proof that Michael Mann is brilliant in every element that lends to creating a sense of style on the screen. He’s great at visually arresting an audience and effortlessly creates a distinct atmosphere for his films. Take the first shot after the opening credits. Not even the first scene, but just that first shot. FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) & his superior Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) sit on a log on the beach. The calm waters, clear blue sky and horizon serve as their backdrop. Graham looks to the left – facing the viewer – as he holds a drink. He’s clad in a plain shirt and shorts with his bare feet in the sand. Crawford on the other hand is in full office attire, with his suit draped on the log. He has his back towards us as he looks down at the ground. It’s an intriguing image and lingers a few seconds for the audience to take it in. It’s meticulously composed and very typical of the skill that Michael Mann has in creating a lasting image.

The problem, however, lies in his writing. Mann has a tendency to be heavy-handed, and every example of his poor writing tendencies are on display in this film. He’s the classic example of someone who you’d want to yell at and say, “Show, don’t tell!” The worst offenders of this are the scenes where Graham mutters to himself as he tries to get inside the killer’s head. Mann’s script makes him say out loud every detail, thought and move of the killer as if a play-by-play announcer at a basketball game. The end result is that almost every scene in Manhunter ends up being an exercise of style over substance.

Even then, there are actors in the film talented enough to rise above the material. Joan Allen in one of her first film roles works wonders with her naturally soft easiness to balance out the film’s grotesque look and chilling atmosphere. The highlight though is clearly Brian Cox in the role of Hannibal Lecter. The performance is magnetic in the handful of scenes that he’s in. He brings confidence, charisma and a chilling sense of danger to the role. There’s always the impression that much more is running in his brilliant mind than what’s said and shown on-screen. And a feeling that he knows more about everyone else such that one would wish that the film was about him more than anyone else.

I think I need to rewatch Collateral after I’m done with this Michael Mann marathon. As the only film directed by Mann that he didn’t write, it interests me to revisit what he’s done with another person’s screenplay. I’d imagine that if Michael Mann directed a piece similar to Malick’s The Tree of Life or Caruth’s Upstream Color based off another writer’s work it would be an interesting experience. It would be the perfect vehicle for his unbridled style combined with another writer’s substance.

Rating: C (poor)