Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
There’ve been two fantastic adaptations of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels – Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon lies uncomfortably in-between, like rotting deli meat sandwiched inside two delicious slices of bread. Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs needs no introduction; twenty years later, Bryan Fuller took the same source material to new heights in his dreadful, delightful, canceled-too-soon Hannibal. But immediately following the creative and commercial success of Lambs, Hollywood wanted to capture lightning in a bottle again – without the same people in front or behind the camera.
First came 2001’s Hannibal, with Ridley Scott replacing Demme, new writers, and Julianne Moore taking over for Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling. Striking while the intellectual property was hot, a year later we got Red Dragon, directed by Ratner. Let’s be clear: Brett Ratner is a sexual predator who appears to have used his power in Hollywood to hurt and abuse women for decades. As far as this writer – and hopefully any reader – can tell, the accusations against Ratner are as disgusting as they are credible.
Red Dragon isn’t a failure because of Ratner’s alleged sexual predation, it flops because he doesn’t have an original idea in his tiny little brain. He condenses two-and-a-half excellent seasons of television into a pre-credits sequence; instead of Starling, we follow Special Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton), who discovers the killer he’s been chasing is actually his collaborator, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (still Anthony Hopkins). A prequel to Lambs, Red Dragon flashes forwards a few months and proceeds to crib its predecessor’s premise: an FBI Agent (Graham, instead of Starling) trying to apprehend a monstrous serial killer must turn to the incarcerated, monstrous Lecter for help.
While tabloids have titled him “The Toothfairy,” Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) fancies himself a disciple of William Blake – though you wouldn’t know it from the crime scenes he leaves behind. When Graham starts working the case, Dolarhyde’s murdered two families in brutal home invasions, and it’s clear he’ll do the same again. A few years before he stepped into the shoes of another franchise antagonist, Fiennes turned in a solid performance as the tormented Dolarhyde. He’s more troubled than evil, as years of childhood abuse have left him with urges he seems unable to resist.
Dolarhyde’s also a Lecter fan – and just as the killer longs for Lecter’s approval, Red Dragon longs to measure up to Lambs. From Demme’s P.O.V. shots in the 1991 classic to the superpower of Graham in the NBC show, the constant in these adaptations is the terrifying idea of seeing through the eyes of a sadistic killer. But even as Ratner occasionally places his subject in the center of a faux-first person frame, there’s no, well, perspective. Is Dolarhyde actually the heir to Lecter’s infamy? Is Graham? The film doesn’t really care, preferring to play the Silence of the Lambs hits.
In other words, you need more than Anthony Hopkins murmuring “we’re not so different, you and I.” Norton’s Will is an unconvincing canvas compared to the empathetic vacuum played by Hugh Dancy on Hannibal. The former feels smart and scarred, with a genuine desire to help others, but Norton maintains a normalcy that robs the character of his most terrifying notion: that Graham might be the only person on the planet capable of connecting with Hannibal. Aside from one inspired turn at the climax, Norton seems more like someone you would see on a CBS procedural than the deeply screwed up individual he should be. I doubt ]Ratner expected a better artist to make a superior adaptation of this same stuff a decade later, but Brett Ratner also doesn’t seem to be very good at seeing the perspectives of other people.
Hoffman’s performance here isn’t bad, but it’s also not particularly special.
Cast again alongside Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Freddy Lounds, writer of The Tattler, the same tabloid that nicknames Dolarhyde “the Tooth Fairy.” Hoffman might make the only aspect of Red Dragon that has a leg up on its peers (Fuller never figured out what to do with his gender-swapped take on Freddy). In just a few short scenes, Hoffman establishes how seedy and indecent his character is, then elicits some sympathy when Lounds is kidnapped and tortured by Dolarhyde. This last scene marks a neat inversion of his interrogation in Mission: Impossible, rounding out another small part and benefiting from Hoffman’s efficient work. Long story short, Hoffman’s performance here isn’t bad, but it’s also not particularly special.
On its own, Red Dragon is a mostly competent psychological thriller – but there’s absolutely no reason to watch it when Lambs and Hannibal are available, and no reason to watch a Brett Ratner picture, either. I wish I had better news this October, but unfortunately, Hoffman never lent his talents to a great horror movie.