Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Awesomely Shitty Movies: Hannibal

Welcome to another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies, here at, where I examine a movie that I want so badly to fully enjoy, but like a crappy, unreliable boyfriend/girlfriend, it just won't get its shit together and commit.

Such a description is very fitting of the film Hannibal (2001), the much-anticipated sequel to the iconic Silence of the Lambs, which saw Anthony Hopkins return to the role that made him a gazillionaire, Hannibal Lecter.  Hannibal had been planned for several years, after Lambs author Thomas Harris announced he'd be writing a follow-up to the massive hit.  Hopkins, Jodie Foster, and director Jonathan Demme jumped right on board, and the world waited patiently while the novel came to fruition.  Unfortunately by the time of its publication in 1998, Demme declined to participate due to the novel's lurid tone, and Foster had already decided to direct her own film and would not be available.  The scramble was on to replace two of the three integral pieces of the puzzle, and eventually Ridley Scott was attached to direct, with Julianne Moore replacing Foster as Clarice Starling.

So why does this movie qualify as Awesomely Shitty?  In short, I find Hannibal a pretty infuriating example of a movie I was absolutely pumped for and ready to love, but so many things about it were executed just plain wrong.  And a few of these things could've been fixed so easily, either with a quick rewrite or an edit.  Before I get to all that negative stuff though, let's talk about what worked.

The Awesome

Julianne Moore

Excuse me for a moment.....JULIANNE, I F*CKIN' LOVE YOU!!

If Clarice had to be recast (and she did), I can't think of a better actress to inherit this amazing character than Julianne Moore.  I've been a big Juli-fanne (TM pending) for a few decades now, and so despite my reservations about Jodie Foster not returning I was pretty stoked to see Moore take the part.  Julianne is one of the most versatile and consistently great actresses working today, who for years was undeservedly snubbed by Oscar until finally taking home the gold in 2015.  Where Foster's Clarice was young and idealistic, Moore's incarnation of the character has become cynical and untrusting after a decade of petty FBI politics and unsavory treatment at the hands of the Old Boy Network.  Over ten years she has earned the dubious honor of having more kills to her name than any other Agent, and at the start of the film she is forced to shoot yet another suspect when the uncooperative DC police undermine her authority in a drug raid.  The Bureau uses this incident as an excuse to take her out of the field, and she's reassigned to the seemingly futile case of the long-disappeared Lecter.  Moore plays Clarice as a woman who once dreamed of being an FBI agent, only to later find that the Bureau doesn't share her virtuous nature and in many ways isn't worthy of having her.

Anthony Hopkins

Wow, this Jesus reference is almost as obvious as the ones in Man of Steel.

It wouldn't be a Hannibal movie without the actor most closely associated with the character (though Mads Mikkelsen did the character proud on the NBC series).  Hopkins followed up his Oscar-winning performance with another strong take on everyone's favorite serial killer.  As we catch up with Hannibal, he's been on the lam in Florence for ten years, enjoying the simple life as an interim curator for an art library.  But now he's itching to return to his old tricks, and after evading capture by both the local police and the henchmen of an old victim, Lecter returns to the States.  As usual, Hopkins is both reptilian and oddly benevolent as this character, despite his homicidal tendencies.  I could watch him play Hannibal Lecter all day long.

Gary Oldman

This makeup is unbelievable.

Uncredited and unrecognizable, Oldman disappears into the odious persona of disfigured child molester Mason Verger, who years ago was victimized by Lecter and left faceless and disabled.  Now Verger is obsessed with tracking down the doctor and getting revenge.  Oldman's face is completely covered in disgusting makeup, but that doesn't hinder him from giving another show stealing performance.

Clarice and Hannibal

Where's the key?  ...........Where's the key??

The relationship between the two main characters in both Lambs and Hannibal is endlessly fascinating.  I'm a sucker for uneasy affiliations between a wholly good and noble character, and one who is morally ambiguous (or worse).  I find this dynamic so enthralling, where the two are on opposite sides of the compass but somehow have an admiration, dependency, or even love for each other (See Professor X and Magneto for another example).  This connection was the backbone of Lambs, and we see some of it again in this film.  While these two characters are interacting with each other I'm all-in.

New Ending

The conclusion to this film is infinitely better than the novel's ending.  In the novel Hannibal somehow convinces the straight-arrow Clarice to run off to Brazil with him, where the two begin a romance and are spotted by Barney, the former orderly of Dr. Chilton's asylum.  This finale felt false on so many levels.  The whole point of the Hannibal-Clarice relationship is that, while they clearly have an intense bond, Hannibal's compulsion to murder people and Clarice's compulsion to always do the right thing keeps them from ever meeting in the middle.  They are two magnets whose north poles are always facing each other - nothing can ever make them truly come together.

Fortunately the filmmakers realized this and threw out this artificial epilogue.  Now Clarice secretly calls in the authorities, handcuffs Lecter's wrist to hers, and refuses to budge even when he threatens her.  Hannibal then cuts off his own hand to escape, rather than allowing any harm to befall the woman he so deeply admires.  This is probably the best scene in the entire film, and I wish the story spent more time on this relationship.

Ok, so there are numerous pluses to this movie, but sadly quite a few minuses as well....

The Shitty

No Jodie Foster

As much as I love Julianne Moore, Foster will always be the "real" Clarice Starling.  Whenever an actor totally nails a character it's almost impossible to replace that person, especially within the same film series.  It'd be like recasting The Joker after Heath Ledger's death, or replacing Harrison Ford with Dennis Quaid in an Indiana Jones sequel.  Sure the new actor is perfectly talented, but their characterization will always live in the shadow of their predecessor's.

No Jonathan Demme

Ditto with directors.  Demme was such an unconventional but brilliant choice to direct Lambs, creating amazingly palpable tension and unease with such simple techniques (Notice how every character Clarice speaks to looks directly into the camera, and therefore at us, which literally assigns us Clarice's POV), he was automatically going to be a tough act to follow.  He also resisted the temptation to use excessive blood/gore, leaving much of the film's violence to the imagination.  Sadly Thomas Harris's sequel was such a sensationalistic freak show, Demme felt he couldn't work with the subject matter, and Ridley Scott was brought in.  Now look, Scott has made some great films, but Hannibal ain't one of 'em.  Scott's approach, when compared to Demme's understated tone, feels garish and overly slick, like someone shot up Silence of the Lambs with steroids.  Instead of being a genuinely scary thriller, Hannibal is a straight-up horror movie with impossibly over-the-top characters and extreme, blood-soaked set-pieces.  Of course much of this is due to the way the novel was written - it's almost like Harris was daring Hollywood to make this film.  But Scott could easily have toned down some of the more "shocking" elements to make Hannibal more believable and less like a gory soap opera.

No Margot

One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Mason Verger's sister Margot, a gay bodybuilder whom Mason sexually abused as a child.  Margot is barren and wants Mason to donate his sperm to her partner Judy, so they can produce an heir to the Verger fortune.  Thus Mason keeps Margot on his hook, and she helps take care of him.  This character and her relationship with her brother struck me as terribly Jerry Springer-ish, but she was given a fair amount of pathos and we pitied her.  She also serves as a plot device for Mason's eventual death, which is absurdly written but makes a helluva lot more dramatic sense than the film's version.  More on that later.  Anyway, Margot would've been a pretty intriguing character to bring to life onscreen so it's a shame the filmmakers wimped out on that one.

Too Much Pazzi

While Lecter is hiding out in Italy, a detective named Rinaldo Pazzi makes him and attempts to bring him in for the $3 million bounty offered by Verger.  Much of the first half of the film is spent on this subplot, which I frankly found pretty dull.  The heart of Lambs and Hannibal, as I said, is and should be the Lecter-Starling dynamic, but Starling barely appears in the first half of this movie because the script spends so much time on Pazzi trying to take Lecter down.  While Giancarlo Giannini's world-weary performance is pretty strong, I just didn't care that much about the Pazzi character and repeatedly found myself wondering what Clarice was up to.  Pazzi has fallen out of favor with his Department due to a botched case but we don't get enough information about the how and why to become emotionally invested in his quest.  So there isn't much to sink our teeth into, and it's obvious this clumsy policeman isn't gonna nab the greatest criminal mind of our time.  This subplot should've been shaved down to only a few scenes so more time could've been devoted to the two main characters.

No Explanation

There are two major plot points that more or less go unexplained or unestablished, and in both cases a one-sentence bit of dialogue could've sorted them out. 

1. Why is Mason Verger a cripple?  In flashback he explains to Clarice how he was disfigured - we see Verger engaged in autoerotic asphyxia, and swinging around by the neck.  Hannibal gives him PCP and tells him to carve off his face and feed it to the dogs.  But it's never established at any point that his spine was severed.  In the book however, after Mason cuts off his face, Hannibal grabs him by the legs and pulls, snapping Mason's neck.  Thus we understand Mason's motivation for revenge.  But in the film that's never shown, begging the question, "Other than being drugged by Hannibal, how does Mason qualify as his 'victim?'"

2. This one is a much greater flaw.  Near the end of the film, Hannibal escapes Verger's hog pit, and Verger orders his servant Cordell into the pit to pick up a gun and shoot him.  Hannibal then suggests that Cordell throw his boss into the pit instead, and tell everyone Hannibal did it.  Then without the script having established any sort of resentment or hate toward Verger on the part of Cordell, the assistant murders his boss in cold blood.  Seriously guys?  Cordell is just gonna kill Verger on Hannibal's suggestion, out of convenience?  One brief scene early in the film could've laid out for the audience that Cordell couldn't stand working for Verger.  Instead he just kills him out of the blue.

Of course Verger's death in the novel is very different - originally Margot dunks Mason into a water tank and feeds him to his pet eel, but not before jamming a cattle prod up his rectum which allows her to collect some of his sperm.  This is an absolutely batshit ridiculous way for a character to die, but at least it made dramatic sense.  Margot's deep-seated bitterness toward her brother is established from the beginning and pervades every scene they have together.  Cordell on the other hand is just presented as Verger's manservant, who seems more or less content in his job.

Changing Verger's killer to Cordell without setting up any motivation is some pretty bad storytelling.

Overall Story

The underlying problem with this movie is that its source material is such melodramatic excess, it would've been almost impossible to adapt the story in a grounded way.  The two Verger characters are like something out of a horror comic.  Mason is a crippled, wealthy pedophile without a face, who rolls around in a wheelchair equipped with an electronic eyedropper because he's missing lids on one eye.  Margot is a lesbian bodybuilder undergoing hormone injections for her eventual gender reassignment.  At a certain point these two aren't identifiable as characters, except by their bizarre idiosyncrasies, kind of like how superheroes are defined by their powers.  Even minor characters are trumped up, like Evelda Drumgo, the drug dealer they're trying to arrest at the beginning.  Read Clarice's description of Evelda: "Drumgo's HIV positive and she will spit and bite if she's cornered...And if you happen to be the one who puts her in a patrol don't want to push her head down, she'll likely have a needle in her hair."  Christ, she sounds like a video game boss.  "If you fire your gun at Evelda, aim for the glowing orb below her chin - that's the only spot where she's vulnerable."

Then there's the climax of both the novel and the film which, while certainly never boring, is so over-the-top it becomes unintentionally funny.  Hannibal drugs Clarice and Paul Krendler, then removes the top of Krendler's head and feeds him his own brain.  Was there a single scene in either Red Dragon or Lambs that was this ridiculous? 

That's gettin' to be a lot.....

Like I said, it seemed like Thomas Harris was trying to write a novel that would be unfilmable, and he damn near succeeded.  Still a filmmaker as accomplished as Ridley Scott should've been able to ground the story a bit more and make it something of a suspense film like its predecessor.  What we got instead was a film apparently meant to shock people, at the expense of telling a story we really wanted to invest in.


-The tone was set in the very first scene, when Mason Verger's face (or lack thereof) is revealed immediately, in a flat, brightly-lit shot.  Clearly this movie was about presenting a freak show instead of a thriller, or Mason's reveal would've been saved for the scene in which Clarice first meets him.  That scene is constructed in such a way that the first shot of his face (or lack thereof) is supposed to be a big moment for both Clarice and us.  But it's already been ruined by the opening scene (which incidentally was totally unnecessary to the story).  Imagine if the shark in Jaws were shown full-stop in the opening scene.  How much less impact would the "You're gonna need a bigger boat" moment have had?

-The pickpocket Pazzi hires to capture Lecter's thumb print is played by a pretty terrible actor.  He delivers his few lines of dialogue like an Italian-accented robot.  To quote Wayne's World 2, "Do we have to put up with this? I mean, can't we get a better actor? I know it's a small part, but I think we can do better than this."

-Considering how easily Lecter seems to outsmart everyone else in the known universe, he ends up a pretty easy target for Verger's men outside Union Station.  After his phone conversation with Clarice he walks back to this car and they immediately have the drop on him.  How'd he fall into that trap?  Especially since he knew he and Clarice were being followed??


Hannibal may be a slickly-made horror film with a strong cast and a pretty competently-written script, but sadly it's not a very worthy followup to the masterpiece that was Silence of the Lambs.  Tonally it doesn't fit at all; Lambs was a realistic, suspenseful, and genuinely scary film, while Hannibal goes for cheap, disturbing gross-out moments of almost cartoonish explicitness, without being suspenseful or scary.  Also the film spends so much time with the newly introduced characters (Pazzi and Verger), there's barely enough room for the two leads, and they get so little time to interact the whole payoff just feels underwhelming.  At the end of Lambs I couldn't wait to find out what happened next with these characters, and after Hannibal I found myself saying, "Was that it?"  It seemed like all the elements were in place for a first-rate conclusion to the Hannibal franchise, but they just didn't come together to make a very good film.  Good thing they made Red Dragon after this, to end/begin the series on a high note.

That's it for this edition of ASM.  Come back to soon and see what other movies I crack open and spill out all over the counter!

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