Red Dragon : Hannibal Redux

He’s ba-a-a-ck . Even in protective custody, you can’t let a good ghoul go to waste. In the nerve-frying Red Dragon , Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the world’s most famous cannibal, growing anemic on a diet of dandelion greens, comes back for meat, his wit still as sharp as his incisors. It’s the third time around the frying pan for Anthony Hopkins, a distinguished actor who continues to feign both surprise and humor at his sudden success as an Oscar-winning horror film star. This is not, however, a continuation of the evil carnage wrought by the legendary fiend in the history-making The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal , its corny, over-the-top sequel. Red Dragon returns you to the beginning of the monster’s career, before Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore. It shows you how it all began in what many followers consider the best of Thomas Harris’ three books featuring the serial killer. Just to let you know where you are in the chronology of Dr. Lecter’s rise to infamous insanity, the film begins in 1980, when he was the toast of Baltimore society, serving human body parts to the symphony board, and ends with the announcement of a pretty young visitor to the asylum where he’s serving nine consecutive life sentences. “What is her name?” he sniffs, nostrils raised, smelling prey. Nobody has to say “Clarice Starling.” You know what’s coming next.

But in Red Dragon , Hannibal the Cannibal is just one of two memorable psychos to avoid on a dark street. In what you might call the prologue to a prologue, Lecter comes dangerously close to fatally wounding Will Graham (Edward Norton), the brilliant F.B.I. profiler and forensics expert who caught him and ended his reign of terror. Will is so shaken by this traumatic close shave with death that he leaves law enforcement and retires to Florida with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and son. Suddenly a new maniac is on the loose, slaughtering whole families on nights with a full moon, labeled the “Tooth Fairy” because of the jagged teeth prints he leaves in their flesh. Reluctantly, Will is lured back to work and forced to turn to his worst enemy for advice on how to solve the case. The rest of the movie is not for people with high blood pressure or prone to fainting spells.

It’s no wonder the Tooth Fairy, a.k.a. the “Red Dragon” because of a mysterious Chinese symbol left behind at every murder scene, writes mash notes to Dr. Lecter’s maximum-security cell in the asylum. He is Francis Dolarhyde, a shy, mild-mannered employee of a photo-developing plant who has a harelip and a massive inferiority complex. Secretly, however, he’s a bodybuilder with a sexual-identity problem and a pyromaniac with a fondness for ancient tortures, whose toned torso is covered with the tattoo of a dragon from a 200-year-old drawing housed in the Brooklyn Museum. Ralph Fiennes, in one of his most lurid characterizations, is every bit as diabolical as the celebrated cannibal he hero-worships. When so many sick sisters put their damaged brains together, the horrors escalate, and director Brett Ratner literally piles on the Grand Guignol.

The excellent script by Ted Talley balances sharp, intelligent dialogue with vivid and intriguing characters, and the first-rate cast serves the material with real passion instead of souped-up histrionics. Emily Watson is marvelous as the lonely blind girl who almost turns Dolarhyde human before she lands in a terrifying situation beyond her comprehension. Harvey Keitel is a doggedly determined F.B.I. boss, and Philip Seymour Hoffman gives another indelible performance as the unscrupulous reporter for a sleazy tabloid who pays dearly for his scoop, glued to a flaming wheelchair minus his tongue.

Edward Norton makes a riveting centerpiece-tough and brilliant, heroic but not afraid to hide the fact that he knows the meaning of fear. This chameleon is having a banner season. In the triumphant New York stage revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This , he’s oily, arrogant and on the verge of violence with a black mustache and a slick doo-wop pompadour. In Red Dragon , he’s a clean-cut preppie with a healthy tan and streaked blond hair who looks like he plunges into harm’s way with ferocity to solve cases only when he’s not busy modeling for Ralph Lauren’s Polo collection. Ralph Fiennes is another hypnotic doppelgänger , psychologically twisted from childhood by a cruel, sexually abusive mother (the voice of Ellen Burstyn) and trembling with the need for someone to love, then shrieking naked through the darkness of a deserted nursing home to plan an apocalypse of carnage. It’s a fearless performance that is scary and appealing at the same time.

That leaves Anthony Hopkins in an odd position. He’s the one we return to see, time after time, yet this film is just a prelude to the slaughter that Lecter will perpetrate later. Most of the time, he’s confined in chains to the subterranean caverns of the asylum where Clarice Starling will later tread. This leaves him fairly toothless, so to speak, and forces Mr. Hopkins to achieve a full characterization with narrowed lizard eyes and facial tics. But even with restraints, he commands attention. He’s a monster resistant to every method in criminology, but you’ve got to admit he’s an amusing monster. Give him sodium pentathol and he’ll give you a recipe for clam dip.

Red Dragon remains my favorite of the three Thomas Harris books. It was filmed once before, in 1986, as Manhunter , a dull, second-rate, routine cops-and-killers programmer with the shocks and decadence missing. Mr. Harris once told me that he was so devastated by the dismal way his material was ruined that he vowed never to sell the rights to any of his future novels to Hollywood again. Luckily, Jonathan Demme came up with the right approach to The Silence of the Lambs and the author wisely changed his mind. Red Dragon is on the same level of achievement-beautifully acted, superbly written, imaginatively directed and photographed, and nail-gnawingly suspenseful. It didn’t work in 1986, but this time they got it right. Red Dragon is so good that it might be the final word on Hannibal Lecter. If so, he can now rest in peace-but as a resident of the same building where Boris Karloff lived and died, I don’t believe it. To quote my doorman, “He’ll be back.”

Delectable Witherspoon

Sweet Home Alabama is second-rate fluff with a first-rate star. Delectable Reese Witherspoon is New York’s newest sensation, a trendy fashion designer and media darling who graces all those glossy, irrelevant publications that make methadone clinics look like moonglow. Engaged to the rich, handsome, politically ambitious son (Patrick Dempsey) of the gorgeous Mayor of the city (Candice Bergen), she’s got a great career, a marriage proposal that came in the middle of Tiffany’s, and a wedding at the Plaza in the works. What nobody knows is that the debutante from a white-columned Southern plantation who is taking the Apple by storm is really trailer trash from Pigeon Creek, Ala., with a redneck husband she married in high school and hasn’t seen in seven years. Once she’s back in the land of coon dogs, chicken-fried steak and lightning bugs-and don’t forget the catfish festival-things just kind of get down in her gizzard, you know what I mean? Her folks, Earl and Pearl, have hearts of melted lard, her husband looks like a young Paul Newman, and everyone takes time for a good homily or two (“You can’t ride two horses with one ass,” says Earl) before the happy fade. By the time all of New York high society descends on Dogpatch, she’s found out what a selfish, stuck-up “psycho Daisy Mae” she’s become, and … well, you get the picture. It’s as preposterous and phony as a Confederate C-note, but Reese Witherspoon has so much natural beauty, talent and charm she guarantees more fun than the day the hogs ate Willie.

Mourning In America

Moonlight Mile , a meandering soap opera written and directed by Brad Silberling, is not exactly a fiasco, but it is a disappointment, with A-list actors from whom I expected a great deal more. When his fiancée is murdered in a freak shooting in a coffee shop on the eve of their marriage, a young man named Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) stays on in the home of the girl’s parents, Ben and Jojo Floss (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), to administer damage control. While the local D.A. (Holly Hunter) tries to prosecute the killer, the parents turn their would-be son-in-law into their surrogate child. Ben makes him a new partner in his office, selling commercial real estate. Jojo elects him as her confidante, a repository for her rage and cynicism. It’s up to Joe to discover that he’s the crutch they both lean on, the wedge that prevents them from connecting with each other in the intimacy they dread.

Joe is the blank page everyone wants to write on. What they don’t know is that the engagement was broken off three days before their daughter’s death. As their mourning intensifies, Joe tries to be what everyone else wants him to be, losing himself along the way. When he falls in love with another girl, he must find a way to break away and save himself from a bogus future without breaking the hearts of the people he cares about.

When each of the parents finally cracks, it gives two fine actors a chance to show what they’ve got, but the rest of the movie just limps around them. In a contrived courtroom dénouement, Joe gives the town a “truth enema” at the trial, providing a resolution for everyone that is not entirely convincing. Ben changes his mind about carving up the town and redeveloping the popular hangout where his daughter died, Jojo unclogs her writer’s block and miraculously hits the typewriter, and Joe hits the road.

Because Moonlight Mile deals with family, small-town paradoxes and the various ways people deal with grief in the face of unexpected tragedy, comparisons with In the Bedroom are unavoidable. But Moonlight Mile never comes close to the subtle, wrenching honesty and fresh observance of minute detail that made In the Bedroom such a shocking and exemplary American masterpiece. It means to be slow and considered, but it’s never remotely as original or as emotionally involving. The title doesn’t even make sense. Moonlight Mile is manipulative and brush-stroked with so much Disney gloss it looks polyurethaned. The actors work hard, to little avail. Mr. Hoffman is a coiled cylinder of tension, and Ms. Sarandon (giving the best and most original performance in the film) is a statue of resignation and pragmatism. The biggest problem is the character of Joe, who is so passive and inarticulate you just want to punch him, and Mr. Gyllenhaal plays the role the same blank-faced way he played the teenage misfits in Donnie Darko and The Good Girl , with a trademark awkwardness that is getting to be a drag. That big, droopy, wet-eyed, “Who stole my cereal bowl?” school of acting is O.K. for cocker spaniels, but somebody should tell him this performance has already been given by Tobey Maguire.