Image A- Sound A+ Extras B-
"Apéritif," "Amuse-Bouche," "Potage," "Œuf," "Coquilles," "Entrée," "Sorbet," "Fromage," "Trou Normand," "Buffet Froid," "Rôti," "Relevés," "Savoureux"
by Walter Chaw I read Thomas Harris's Red Dragon some time in the summer of 1985, when puberty and a crippling stutter conflated new, confusing biological drives with defensive rage. It's a wonder, really, that anyone gets out of junior-high alive. I had developed a taste for outré entertainments long around this time--thirteen, gawky, outcast in my mind, if not necessarily in reality. It was easier for me to identify with the Michael Myerses and Jason Vorheeses of the underverse: hiding, voyeuristic, jealous, yearning. I think we learn affinity with monsters as our own bodies betray us, metastasize around us, dosing our brains with liquid spikes of ecstasy and their attendant pitch-black abysses. I took refuge in movies rented from the local video stores in and around my suburban oubliette, and eventually in books like Harris's masterpiece, which, once discovered, was something I came back to like a scab, like a totem to be worried. Watching Manhunter on VHS a year or so after its release, I was astounded to discover it was Red Dragon. I hadn't considered that anyone else knew about, much less was interested in, the contents of my secret stash. In the years before Internet and the vast, instant dissemination of information, there were still such things as the private, the personal. Manhunter was validation, exposure, and sanctification of my perversion. I was outed.
In other words, I love Red Dragon and Manhunter. More than that, I'm protective of them. They're the band I liked before The Silence of the Lambs turned them into headliners at larger venues. I knew them when they were small, bitches, and took a lot of pleasure in opining that Brian Cox's Hannibal the Cannibal was, is, and always shall be the definitive interpretation of the character: the Kane Hodder, the Gunnar Hansen. Great moments in media synergy? When I ran to get my copy of Thomas Harris's book during Cox's too, too brief appearance in Manhunter so I could compare the book with the script. I was obsessed with forensic science because of Harris. I was obsessed with intelligence. I was obsessed with obsession, it's stupid to say--but true. It made me interested in Michael Mann; it maybe made me an auteurist. Red Dragon was the reason I rented Thief the next day. Funny how fires start.
When it was announced that the long-since circumcised Hannibal franchise was about to receive a weekly NBC series, I didn't take it as good news. Worse, Bryan Fuller was the showrunner--he of the guy-named girls and specious supernatural high concepts, too cute by half and the quintessence of why the word "twee" was invented. But though I avoided its broadcast run, I've now watched the first season of Fuller's "Hannibal" three times all the way through, coming to the conclusion that it's not as smart as Harris's conception, not as masculine as Mann's, and not as operatic as Demme's, but that it's more doom-laden than any of them. It operates in a twilit half-life--enough so that it's speculated the show is set in a literal limbo. I think it's more likely Hell. Rather, it's reality as the equivalent of Hell, something Miltonic where if God is watching, He isn't helping, and there never was a good explanation for why all the suffering. At the end of it, it elicits the feeling you get from a first go-through of Paradise Lost. More to the point, it feels like Chinatown and its quasi-remake, Angel Heart.
All of which is to say that although it doesn't start well, somewhere in the middle it bores into the viscera and lodges there. How did Clive Barker begin his short story "Dread"? "There is no delight the equal of dread." It's true. "Hannibal" is delightful. It presents a world of absolute perverse corruption. There is no question of redemption, as there is no redemptive light. In changing brilliant Dr. Alan Bloom, a secondary character oft-referenced in the book, into a more primary figure as well as a woman (Caroline Dhavernas) and obvious love interest for our hero, Fuller introduces sex into the mix--something Harris himself does in his Hannibal, though the film version of the same inexplicably shied away. Fuller introduces pathos, too, in recasting tabloid hack Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki) as a woman--pathos because we the faithful know Freddie's ultimate fate. And because we're chauvinists, or maybe just human (maybe there's no difference), that fate is somehow harder to absorb when it's an attractive young woman. Finally, there's real complexity when FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is recast partly as a young FBI cadet--a girl again, Miriam (Anna My Girl Chlumsky), who discovers Hannibal's true identity and is murdered for her trouble. In the backstory of Red Dragon, see, Will discovers Hannibal's identity and gets a near-fatal knife to the gut for his troubles. What's happened in the series is that (Jungians, take note) Will's feminine side has been calved off and murdered, and all that's left is mortal, fragile, halved. Despite the coup of casting Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter (and, to a lesser degree, Laurence Fishburne as FBI director Jack Crawford), the star of the show appears to be these gender reversals that, to a one, magnify and elevate the mood of the piece.
"Hannibal" is a prequel and perhaps a quantum alternate reality by the end of it. Or a fever dream. The first four episodes establish Graham as the now-cliché FBI profiler who solves complex murder cases by getting into the minds of the killers. It opens with a crime scene unrelated to the others that I suspect will resolve as the introduction to Red Dragon's storyline; then transitions into a serial killer mini-plot involving a murderer of young women who tries to kill, as his final act, daughter Abigail (Kacey Rohl). Graham saves her and immediately feels paternal towards her. Later, when Hannibal Lecter, an esteemed psychiatrist invited to consult with Graham (and evaluate him), also develops paternal feelings towards Abigail, "Hannibal" creates an interesting nuclear dynamic that deepens in consideration of the gender reconfigurations of the piece. If Graham will eventually be de-feminized, does that mean Lecter is "mother"? After all, casting Lecter as the womb provokes the reading that everything in the series is potentially the offspring of Lecter's fecundity. In a metatextual way, "Hannibal" is self-identifying this creation as the wellspring of everything currently with traction in prime-time dramatic television: all the forensics shows, all the sickness, all the attempts to explain the ways of no-God to Man. The character is the creator goddess and, as such, a series that presumes to be a prequel to that mythology has the heady responsibility of coalescing chaos around what is essentially the figure of a literal primogenitor. The seeking of a metaphysical explanation for the tonal vibe of the series gains strength in this way.
"Hannibal" is austere, colour-bleached, and, following the pilot, minimalist in its camera movements and placement. The first three instalments are clunky in the way of a new series. It's trying to establish characters. It's searching for rhythm. An image recurring of a feathered stag seems pretentious initially. Later, it'll become portentous in the best way. The fourth, never-aired episode (Fuller himself pulled it for its alleged echoes of the Boston Marathon bombings), starring Molly Shannon as a mother figure who convinces stolen sons to kill their previous families, is probably the weakest of the lot. A standalone, it has all the qualities of the lame procedural a "Hannibal" show could have been. If you quit after this episode, it'd be hard to blame you. But then something interesting, really interesting, happens in episode 1.5, "Coquilles," the most gruesome hour of network television probably ever, but also the point where we realize that something is happening to the reliability of the show's "narrator," Graham. Reality begins to break. In 1.6, "Entrée," named after the French concept of an "entrée" as a small course served before a larger one (an "entry," as it were), Graham asks Crawford if Crawford is able to distinguish between his waking and sleeping consciousness. It's an interesting question, because the series begins to offer buffers and scene changes that imply hallucination while depicting a progressively more haggard Graham. Without the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see this episode as another killer-of-the-week hour with the emergence of Dr. Gideon (Eddie Izzard), inhabiting the last cell on the left as Hannibal himself would in The Silence of the Lambs (sadly, guard Barney was not released from MGM's grip for the series), who's been planted with the suggestion that he is Lecter--at least Lecter's incarnation as the "Chesapeake Ripper."
The introduction--the "entrée," as it were--of the idea of psychological inception will be the driving force for the rest of the first season as it veers from something promising but familiar into something exceptionally unfamiliar. "Hannibal" becomes about existentialism in very much the same way something like "Twin Peaks" once aspired. Consider the marvellous, CGI-enhanced tracking shot into, around, and out of an opera performance in "Sorbet" (1.7)--directed by James Foley, whose career has found a second wind in television--that suggests the surrealism of Ripley's Game as imagined by Julie Taymor, or Tarsem Singh. Consider the intrusion of dreams and ghosts, the establishment of characters who flit through to be paid off somewhere down the line with nightmare images, like the corpse transformed into an instrument, his vocal chords strung like catgut in an empty concert hall. (And then they play the damned thing.) More, look to episode nine, "Trou Normand," and its six-legged, human-part totem pole, predicting the death's-head moth of Silence of the Lambs against a raging backdrop of the sea behind it. Lance Henriksen guests in this one and his performance constitutes both wonderful link and closure to his turn in the badly-underestimated "Millennium".
The moment "Hannibal" turns into something grander than good is in the tenth episode, "Buffet Froid," directed by Red Rock West helmer John Dahl, where we learn that Graham has a rare neurological condition that's potentially fatal. When Lecter and a neurologist buddy (John Benjamin Hickey) make a quiet pact to allow Graham to continue to slip in and out of delirium, to suffer and perhaps die, just because of the rarity of his condition and the opportunity to observe active pathology...well. Look, "Hannibal" is easy to dismiss. It leers at the gore during Graham's recreations, it's true--leers to the extent that one could argue "exploitation" and not meet much resistance. Yet the series pays off that leering attitude when Graham's point of view becomes primary to the series' philosophy--when, in the most startling scene of the first season, he can't tell if he sees someone under a bed. It's deeply disturbing. Gillian Anderson, for what it's worth, plays Lecter's own therapist; Ellen Muth, from Fuller's "Dead Like Me", appears as a girl with an odd disorder that causes her to want to remove what she perceives to be masks.
The series is about that. Hannibal describes himself as a "patient who puts on a human suit"--which his therapist corrects as "a very well-tailored person suit... Maybe less of a person suit and more of a human veil." The topic of loneliness is broached, and the series is about that, too. It's the impossibility of identity, the unscalable summit of knowledge of any kind, the slipperiness of reality from any one moment to the next. It's all real, and it's all fake, and the only absolute in "Hannibal" is that things are already bad and likely to get worse. There is no sanctuary in family, science, culture, law--there's only succour in mechanical Darwinism. The brilliance of "Hannibal" is its timeliness, of course; its appearance in the middle of the cynical age is elegantly positioned and well-met. I'd argue, however, that the show has a timelessness about it that speaks to fears of aging and decrepitude, of disease, of insufficiencies either current or soon to come. What gives it archetypal power are its sudden flashes of violence, its ultimate landing on the "wrong man" theme, its unsettling displacement of not simply the reliability of what it's showing but also a well-known mythology. Take the moment when Jack interposes the corpse of his lost cadet with Graham post-autopsy. It's a delusion, a dream certainly, a character moment bespeaking guilt in something lesser--but in "Hannibal", it's a glimpse through a wormhole into an alternate reality suggested by Red Dragon, and the presentation of a very real possibility that the one thing that's reliable, that is constant, is painful transformation. "Hannibal" is my new secret stash; I keep it with a copy of The King in Yellow and "True Detective". Who knew that in the twenny-teens there would be a rise in the cult of Cthulhu? Perhaps the time is ripe after all for Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness. The last half of "Hannibal"'s debut season is as good as anything on television. I feel possessive of it. It's nice to have something that's private.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Issued in separate but identically-configured Blu-ray editions by Lionsgate in the U.S. and eOne in Canada, the first season of "Hannibal" docks on three dual-layered platters in a consistent 1.78:1, 1080p presentation that reproduces the filmlike digital production's sharp detail and desaturated colour palette with fidelity. You can count every hair in Fishburne's stubbly haircut--ditto Dancy's beard as Will grows increasingly disturbed and unkempt. Dynamic range is rich, though whether due to compression or the original photography, a few of the shadow-shrouded interiors are counter-productively hard to see. Ultimately, that's picking nits: This is a well-funded series shot in the second decade of the new millennium and looks optimal on Blu-ray, because the format remains superior to streaming or cable. Better still is the 5.1 DTS-HD lossless audio, which takes great advantage of the discrete soundstage--including the LFE channel, here capable of making plaster rain from the ceiling should you so desire. The mixes have a gratifyingly loud base volume.
Select HiDef featurettes are scattered across the set, beginning with the self-explanatory "Pilot Episode Storyboards." "Hannibal Reborn" (11 mins.) is a making-of with producer Martha De Laurentiis front and centre, confidently proclaiming that there have been "five" adaptations of Harris's works to the screen. Actually, it's six. Why does everyone forget Black Sunday? Anyhow, she talks about meeting "genius" Bryan Fuller and I kind of lose interest. Fuller, for his part, has a cat-that-ate-the-canary smirk throughout--and why not? He's finally produced of merit. Of some interest is the almost-spoken opinion that NBC opted into the explicit gore of the series in part to compete with the ascendance of cable-based fare--even non pay-cable fare like "The Walking Dead". "A Taste for Killing (14 mins.) details how the food of the piece is prepared by master chefs and food artists. "I want it to be food porn!" says Fuller. You get the picture. "Gag Reel" (5 mins.) isn't about the gross-out effects, although it should be. Basically, it's Dancy forgetting lines, but there's a clip where a cameraman has apparently fallen down that shows Dancy exhibiting genuine concern and rushing to help. While I wouldn't have thought otherwise, it shows the actor in a kind, human light.
Yakkers grace two episodes, starting with the premiere, "Apéritif." Fuller, director David Slade, and Dancy join forces for a session that's informative, droll, and a little self-satisfied, but again, at least it's not for something like "Pushing Daisies" or "Mockingbird Lane" or someshit. The same trio reteams for series exuent "Savoreux" on Disc 3. Though mostly a rehash, Dancy proves throughout to have a nice sense of humility about himself. He seems amused at his own on-screen disintegration on more than one occasion. The third and final disc's "A Symphony for the Slaughter" (11 mins.) spotlights composer Brain Reitzell's moody work on the show. I would say generally that less score is more--but for the "broad" elements and high ambition of the series, Reitzell's unyielding music is wholly appropriate. "The FX of Murder" (15 mins.) reveals that many of the effects I thought to be CGI were in fact practical, down to an actress Fuller mentions was an unusually game cadaver. "Will and Alana" (3 mins.) is a deleted scene that slightly deepens their (homosexual, sort of) relationship. It's one of many fascinating turns in the series dictated by Fuller's gender-swaps. I do wish there was more insight into those decisions on offer.