The Hannibal horror-movie franchise (Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon) gets an extraneous third installment from best-selling novelist and scriptwriter Thomas Harris.
>The film starts out seeming promising, as director Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring) grabs your attention with a staggering wartime opening sequence, in which a fighter plane crashes into a manned Nazi tank near a Lithuanian castle. Production designer Allan Starski (The Pianist) puts the metallic taste of war into your mouth as the dark shadows of death fall on the winter ground. Immediately, the filmmakers establish an antiwar theme, foreshadowing the personal devastation that will leave the surviving victims and their oppressors with bizarre, internalized forms of violence.
Producer Dino De Laurentiis, who has more than 150 films to his credit, has assembled an ardently talented crew and cast who deliver bold performances. The problem is with the storytelling: Too much gets explained.
French actor Gaspard Ulliel (Strayed) plays the incipient cannibal. After Nazis murder his affluent parents near the family's castle, a desperate pack of rogue soldiers cannibalize his younger sister and take the siblings hostage in a nearby hunting lodge. Hannibal is then taken to a brutal Soviet orphanage, where his detached reasoning of cruelty is solidified. Finally, he escapes to Paris, where his widowed Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li, Memoirs of a Geisha), welcomes him. It isn't long before Hannibal's indoctrination into Japanese traditions, French cuisine and medical techniques sends him on a killing spree unlike any other.
When a butcher at a public French market insults Lady Murasaki about the direction of her genitalia, Hannibal takes his bloody revenge, using a samurai sword in the service of a comical decapitation. Having whetted his appetite for murder, Hannibal then sets about hunting down and dispatching the soldiers who cooked his little sister and shared the broth of her soup with him.
The exposition robs the audience of its own dark ideas about the source of Hannibal's nefarious desires. As suspense and horror master Alfred Hitchcock taught, the true nature of fright resides in the spectator's piqued imagination. Filling in the blanks about the motivations of a Norman Bates or a Hannibal Lecter is half the fun.
Silence of the Lambs is one of the scariest films of the past 20 years because we are led to contemplate the potential for evil behind the dilated pupils of Anthony Hopkins' demented character. Hannibal's twisted empathy for Jodie Foster's perfectly vulnerable Clarice Starling is deeply unsettling because it suggests a strange reciprocal relationship between them and the cryptic serial killer Buffalo Bill. Hopkins' Hannibal penetrates Starling's psyche, and consequently our own subconscious, by establishing Foster's character as our cherished protagonist. The subtle narrative raises unpleasant questions about our own susceptibility to destructive influences, and provides grist for our nightmares to sort out. Not so in Hannibal Rising, in which our protagonist is the killer.
Photography director Ben Davis (Layer Cake) captures dense visual compositions that give Thomas Harris' formulaic plot fertile, classical underpinning. If anything makes the movie dramatic, however, it's Ulliel. With a deep dimple on his left cheek that doubles as a scar of unimaginable origin, he is endlessly watchable. His audacious performance bewitches the viewer into relishing something that we should not. There is nothing to be frightened of here.