Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Civilisation and the Wilderness: Manhunter.

At an early point in Manhunter (1986), FBI investigator Will Graham falls asleep while studying a series of grizzly crime scene photographs. While he dreams of his wife Molly, a little girl seated next to him sees the photographs, and becomes upset. When Graham awakes and frantically gathers the pictures, the child’s mother and an air-stewardess look at him with thinly veiled suspicion and disgust. The scene is effective for two reasons. First of all, in showing Will dreaming ardently of Molly’s love and acceptance, while at the same time fundamentally alienated from the world of families and children, the scene neatly encapsulates the extent to which Graham has come to parallel or merge with his quarry, serial killer Francis Dollarhyde. Secondly, it captures in miniature much of what makes Manhunter such a subtly unsettling film, even after it has reached a conclusion, which, at least on the surface, seems almost Spielbergian in its sunny optimism. While most serial killer thrillers, including highly touted examples such as Silence of the Lambs and Seven, tend to stress the Gothic otherness of the serial murderer, Manhunter plunges into an unnerving hinterland between the safe haven of ordinary life and the violent wilderness that threatens it. Manhunter contrasts the world of safe, happy family life with of that of the psychopathic, covetous outsider, and maintains its unique tension and unease by holding these alternate worlds in such close, fragile proximity.

As in Heat and Collateral, Manhunter dramatises Mann’s preoccupation with the conflict between antithetical combatants, where the moral agency must frequently absorb some characteristics of its opposite in order to prevail. Mann remains fascinated by oppositional contrasts, and dialectical conflicts whose opposing forces begin to merge with and mirror one-another. In Heat, Vincent Hanna’s dedication to his job is predicated on a genuine empathy with the suffering of families who have lost loved ones as a result of violent crime. Ironically, however, it’s his dedication to protecting this domestic sphere which alienates him completely from domesticity in his own life. Consequently, as Roger Ebert put it in his review of Heat, Vincent and his quarry “occupy the same space, sealed off from the mainstream of society, defined by its own rules.” In persistently pursuing this irony, Mann’s cinema re-states a perennial, almost mythical theme in American cinema, going back to John Ford’s greatest westerns: what is the ultimate cost of protecting civilisation from the wilderness that constantly encroaches upon it?

In both The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Ford evokes John Wayne as a guardian/protector figure who remains fundamentally excluded from the world whose values he defends. In The Searchers, Wayne almost slips completely over into madness in his quest to restore his niece to her family; despite attaining a degree of catharsis and redemption, he nevertheless remains a creature of the wilderness. In Liberty Valance, he must recede, unsung, into the antiquated, lawless frontier he helped vanquish. (It is a testament to the continued pervasiveness of these themes in American cinema that Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight is in large part a dramatically diminished attempt to grapple with them.) Martin Scorsese’ Taxi Driver (1976) recapitulated the themes of The Searchers for an era of extraordinary paranoia, in which both masculinity and conservative moral authority lie under a grave suspicion; thus the psychopathology which was implicit in Ethan Edwards comes to the fore, and the heroism becomes increasingly ambiguous and negligible. While Manhunter’s protector figure walks a similarly fine line between nobility and madness, Mann’s vision has more in common with Ford’s. Manhunter, and Mann’s crime movies in general, restore the Western’s eulogy of sacrifice and courage, albeit recast in an entirely modern, urban milieu, and with degree of abstract formalism which owes an equal debt to European cinema.

Manhunter establishes its concern with security and protection with an image which appears very early in the film, and is alluded to again at the conclusion. Working with his son on their Florida beachfront home, retired FBI investigator Will Graham builds a reinforced pen in order to protect a hatchery of turtles from predators. As a miniature metaphor, it eludes to both Graham’s larger responsibility as a protector of the familial sanctuary, and to the coiled, fenced-in tension which pervades the entire movie. Manhunter is set largely within a series of domestic spaces whose cool, geometric architectures alternately evince moods of calm serenity and a deep, sterile foreboding. Graham’s household is established as an almost archetypal expression of sanctuary: an ambient, oceanic sound-design mingles with ethereal synthesisers, and the compositions, both of Graham and Jack, and Jack and Molly, are among Manhunter’s most balanced and symmetrical. (The same synthesiser motif recurs in Jack’s dream, which also recapitulates much of the details of Will’s idyllic life in Florida: Molly, the ocean, and his work at the boatyard. It is fitting, in the context of the film’s overall structure, that the Florida beach-home should be evoked in such a persistently dreamlike fashion, since it is similar notions of a happy life, refined into archetypes, images, and dreams, which fuel Francis Dollarhyde’s murderous rage.)

As in the placid frontier cabin which frequently bookends the western, Graham must abandon the world of civilisation, and descend into a violent, male-dominated wilderness. The question of whether he will be able to fully return hangs over the rest of the film. Graham is called out of retirement because of his special gift: an uncanny ability to get inside the mind of the serial murderers he pursues. His ability is akin to that of an artist or an actor; by retracing the steps of the killer, he gradually assumes the psychotic “mindset”, in a process similar to an actor getting into character. Unlike his colleagues, Will understands psychopathic crime, in Freudian terms, as an enactment of wish-fulfilment, or an expression of the killer’s most deep-seated dreams. (Interestingly, as in Thief, Manhunter associates deep longing with images, this time both still photographs and home videos.) His gift for empathy, however, borders on schizophrenia, and he has already crossed over into the deep-end in his pursuit of Hannibal Lecktor. Will’s perilous decision to return to work, as in the case of Vincent Hanna in Heat, is largely a matter of self-sacrificial nobility; however, there is also subtle suggestion that he is also drawn to a certain darkness within his own mind. As Lecktor suggests in the brilliantly executed interview sequence, Will has troubling dreams of his own, and may derive his ability for empathy by possessing some essential similitude to his prey.

The bulk of Manhunter then takes place, as I suggested earlier, in a hinterland or liminal zone between the film’s overarching spatial and thematic oppositions: between domestic sanctuaries that dovetail with the antiseptic dread of hospitals and prison cells, and the heightened primary colours and weird lunar landscapes of Francis Dollarhyde’s living area. What is fascinating about Manhunter is that it suggests the possibility of traffic in both directions, and establishes Graham and Dollarhyde as neat, inverted mirrors of one another. When the film’s attention transfers midstream to Dollarhyde, and we observe his shy courtship of Reba, there is a genuine, albeit transitory, possibility that he might attain a degree of mental normalcy and happiness. Graham, in contrast, is in danger of going in the opposite direction, and crossing over from empathy into a total identification with the wilderness. With a much greater effectiveness than the deeply overrated A History of Violence, Manhunter evokes a troubling darkness which threatens the domestic world from both without and within.

Exploring how Manhunter dramatises these oppositions and inversions leads to a consideration of style. Style remains a highly controversial issue in relation to Mann’s filmography, to such an extent that Mann himself appears distinctly uncomfortable, or even defensive, when discussing his films in relation to style. This is perfectly understandable, when one considers that a very lazy critical shorthand has developed around Mann in mainstream film criticism, which basically suggests that Mann made his name with a flashy and stylised television phenomenon in the eighties, and continues to pursue an aesthetic of style over substance in his movies. (As an aside, it is pretty dispiriting to observe the extent to which mainstream newspaper and magazine film journalism has become dependant on lazy critical short-hand and studio press releases. Following the critical fortunes of particular films on web-sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, you begin to suspect that modern films are marketed with a stock of phrases and ideas, which a lot a critics utilise more or less like stencils.)

The whole idea of style over substance is itself largely a false dichotomy, predicated on an negative connation of style as a matter of ostentation and ornamentation. Ostentation and excessive ornament are better understood as a type of style, rather than a definition of the word itself. A film-maker’s style is better appreciated in two senses, both as a characteristic methodology which is sustained, and evolved, throughout each of his/her films, and also as the manner in the film-maker utilises the full panoply of formal cinematic devices to express the film’s content. Mann is an eminently stylish film-maker, in that he conceives cinematic form and content in an almost indivisible, holistic fashion. His films blur both foreground and background, and technique and meaning. This is why they are particularly rewarding after multiple-viewing; after the story has been absorbed, you begin to appreciate how composition, architectural milieu, colour, and a variety of other formal/tonal components combine to achieve the overall effect.

Manhunter is very good example of this holistic approach to film-making, and its continual marriage of form and meaning is extraordinary. In the afore-mentioned interview scene, Mann shots both Graham and Lecktor through the bars of the sparse white cell, gradually bringing them into an identical frame, and increasing the cutting speed from one to the other. This is one of a variety of devices throughout the movie which leads to a mounting sense of disorientation and loss of identity. The tiger sequence with Reba, justly celebrated for its remarkable tactility alone, also manages to refer to Dollarhyde’s obsession with Blake, to the perilous nature of Reba’s relationship with him, and to the potent suppressed violence which seems to co-exist with Graham’s tenderness as a husband and father. On this subject, perhaps most striking of all is the scene where Graham takes his son to a supermarket, in order to discuss his history of mental illness in relation to his work. This juxtaposition, once more combining the quotidian and the sinister, manages to make the arrangement of products on a supermarket shelf both eerily unfamiliar, and faintly absurd.

In Heat and Collateral, Vincent and Max attain a degree of empathy and respect for their perspective adversaries, and seem to experience a certain mournfulness upon vanquishing them. For Graham, however, no such sympathy is possible or desirable; he must utterly destroy his doppelganger/opponent, for the stability of the community and his own fragile sense of identity. The conclusion of Manhunter is thus one of suitably kinetic violence: Graham crashes through the glass which has been so pervasive as a thin barrier throughout the film, and Dollarhyde attains the wings of the dragon, albeit in a manner which emphasizes his mortality rather than the divinity he aspired to. Unlike Ethan Edwards and the various protector-figures alluded to earlier, Graham gets to return to his domestic idyll, seemingly intact and well. In the final scene, the camera lingers on his scared and weary face just long enough to threaten otherwise, but it’s probably a red-herring. The return to the Florida beach house is scored by Heartbeat by the Red 7, an absurd, albeit catchy power ballad of unmistakably eighties vintage. Graham is back with Molly, and most of the turtles have survived. It seems, if anything, like an excessively happy ending. However, by closing on a still of the family at the edge of the surf, Mann maintains a certain unease, even in the face of the Red 7’s strident MOR positivism. Throughout the film, photographic images of the happy and carefree family have been associated with desire and wish-fulfilment, and wish-fulfilment with violence; the barriers between Manhunter’s alternate poles of sanctuary and wilderness remain uneasily fragile and permeable.


  1. I really enjoyed your fascinating, in-depth analysis of MANHUNTER. The analogy to westerns is certainly apt. I also thought it is interesting how this film anticipates all the profiler/CSI-type shows that are all the rage on TV.

    I also wrote something on this film over at my blog:


  2. Hey JD. Yep, I'd read your thing on Manhunter,plus the more recent post on Crime Story. Yeah, Manhunter does preempt the whole CSI universe, down to the presense of William Peterson. I hate those shows though, the colours of CSI make me kinda nauseous!

  3. Oh yeah, those CSI shows are a pale imitation of MANHUNTER. I couldn't agree more.

  4. One of the consequences of Mann's utter mastery - particularly as a stylist - has been the way his style has been poorly imitated. The laziness you attribute to critics is evident in directors too. The look of Manhunter (and Miami Vice) basically became the visual template for a certain strain of blockbuster - a director like Tony Scott, say, has in the past done a glossy, superficial version of Mann without any content or thematic depth. CSI just shows how deeply this has penetrated the mainstream.

    Its only a matter of time before the work Mann is doing with digital cameras starts to show up in bad imitations too...

    Another great post, by the way.

  5. Great post! I think the ending you describe is the ending of the "Director's Cut" of the film. The theatrical release has Graham and his boss just wander away from the crime scene and stand next to a lake. I think it can be found on YouTube.

  6. This is a great post. This is the first time I have read a piece about Manhunter that actually appears to be written by someone who has actually seen the film and not just as a side note to Silence of the Lambs. I have always wondered about the scene you first mention, Graham's dream on the plane. I would really like to hear Mann's explanation of this, why he chose to shoot it that way and why that music? It's my favourite part of the film and you are the first person I have found who has written about it. Well done!!!