195) Manhunter (1986) Dir: Michael Mann Date Released: August 1986 Date Seen: June 25th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
The look and feel of frenetic dynamism in writer/director Michael Mann's Manhunter is the key to understanding why it's probably the celebrated American stylist's most striking film. His fastidious attention to visual detail embeds the bulk of the film's meaning in its ever-shifting look. It, like the film's protagonist and villain, are always changing, transforming, "becoming" something but never elaborating at length through heavy-handed dialogue what that something is. Mann's investment in the lurid neon colors and art deco furnishings details shows off his key interest in the film: a psychology of imagistic immediacy.
There is no overarching visual schema uniting the various scenes in Manhunter, a sign of Mann's dedication to representing investigator Will Graham's (William Petersen) gradual penetration into the psyche of a killer, played with surprising restraint by Tom Noonan. Like Graham's search, Manhunter unfolds in dribs and drabs, segmented into individual parts that do not cohere into either a sensible aesthetic or even a narrative that ties together all of its loose strands.
Eventually, even Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), the infamous intellectual cannibal made famous by Anthony Hopkins, is lost in the shuffle. He, like so many of the film's other carefully synthesized images--the tiger, the mirrors, etc.--are used and then never returned to. They're just disposable bread crumbs on the path to Graham's understanding of how and why the so-called "Tooth Fairy" chooses his victims and hence not worth revisiting.
Mann's need to change from one scene to the next shows that, like Doug Liman after him, he's more interested in individual actions and motions than in any overarching bigger picture. That troublesome but compelling credo is most salient during during Manhunter's more violent scenes, like Graham's encounter with a jogger or his confrontation with the "Tooth Fairy."
Mann's fixation with slow-motion in the latter is made all the more dreamy by the film's sensory depriving soundtrack which blasts "Inagaddadavida" while Noonan blasts his way through policemen and Petersen hurdles through a wall-sized window. There's nothing to ground it to reality, let alone the next scene, which abruptly brings us back to Graham's happy beachside home with his wife and child. That startling return to normalcy reminds us of the miasma of clues and horrors Graham is forcibly pushing past to get back home. Being a Mann protagonist, he's so busy poring over the details of the case that he only really snaps out of that fog of lurid details when he goes into action.