Young, impressionable, and enthralled by Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, I was getting into filmmaking. One of the first films I made with my friends included a riff on Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. To simulate Hannibal’s glass cell, we took the full-length pane from my house’s storm door and put it in the corner of my unfinished, stone wall basement. We stuck our friend, playing our weirdo knockoff Lecter, behind the glass. It was ridiculous, but we knew that. It was parody, and the intended effect was the low-rent pantomime of an iconic character in his unnatural environment. Poor Demme. We were 15, and we were a bunch of kids in a basement, learning how to make films in the shadow of his example. We were coming for him, looking to make our mark, and he didn’t even know it.
Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter was the first on-screen representation of Thomas Harris’ Lecter character—though Mann spelled it “Lecktor” and cast Brian Cox, not Hopkins—and when I watched it, I shrugged. I didn’t connect to it. It’s a colder, more analytical film, like a lot of Mann’s cinema. I think when you’re young, the demonstrative nature of Hopkins’ performance is enough to pull you into Silence. He gives so many weird, mannered line deliveries, and invests Lecter with humor, menace, and those piercing eyes that Demme photographs in extreme, direct-address close-ups. As a relatively young viewer, you can’t help but fall under his spell, just like Clarice Starling.
Hannibal-mania struck in 2001 with the release of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, and led to the Hopkins-as-Lecter retcon Red Dragon (2002, directed by Brett Ratner). Red Dragon went back to the first Harris novel, also the source material for Mann’s film, and I’m embarrassed to say I preferred it to Manhunter. I think I liked it because it had Hopkins, and Lecter’s role was much more substantial in Ratner’s film than in Mann’s–Anthony Hopkins was Anthony Hopkins, after all. But I also remember being thrilled that Ratner had adopted Demme’s visual flair, aping the direct-address close-up as if it were an essential part of the Lecter-verse, as crucial as Hopkins or Anthony Heald’s Dr. Chilton or Frankie Faison’s Barney the Orderly. With Edward Norton in the role of lead investigator Will Graham, carryover from his performances in Fight Club and American History X had made him one of my favorite actors. That sounded much better to me than William Petersen (“the CSI guy”), who had played the role in Mann’s movie.
But, there was something about Red Dragon that bothered me, even then. It was in the film’s final moments, when Graham, having vanquished the Tooth Fairy (Ralph Fiennes), came to visit Lecter one last time. After leaving, Barney tells Lecter that there’s a young woman from the FBI to see him. He looks up and says, with all of Hopkins’s silky menace, “What is her name?” The film cuts to black. You know her name. We’re back at the beginning of Silence, and Clarice is headed down, and everything you remember about the movie you loved is about to happen. Go home, pop in the DVD, and follow the thread. It felt too neat. It was too obvious, too pat. We know what happens next. Do you really need to remind us?
This moment gets at what a soulless exercise Red Dragon really is. It’s a cash-grab, meant to siphon off money from the Hopkins-Lecter machine before he got entirely too old to conceivably do a prequel to a film he’d made 10 years before. The movie is a bundle of empty ideas, wearing another film’s psychopathic prisoner jumpsuit. It asks you to remember, and not much more.
So, older, wiser, with a career and a wife and a clearer sense of my own identity, I gave Manhunter another look. It was a long drive to get to this moment; I graduated with my master’s degree in English with a Film & Literature concentration in 2010, and spent four long years in Great Recession America piecing together an income adjunct teaching composition classes at a spate of Chicagoland community colleges. I’d get up at 6:00 a.m. to beat traffic on my way to one college, where I taught my first course at 8 a.m. I’d squeeze in grading before 10 a.m., when my second class began. I’d teach again at 11, take a working lunch in the adjunct bullpen office, grading and stuffing pretzels in my mouth before class number four started at 1. I’d wrap up at 2:15, hustle out to the parking lot and gun my engine west on the interstate to make it to my fifth class at my second school by 3:30. I’d jet out of the building at 4:45, head back east on the same interstate and shoot for home, where I’d stop for 15 minutes after negotiating rush hour traffic for a quick dinner. Then it was off to school number three, with its satellite campus where I taught located, thankfully, just 10 minutes from the new townhome I shared with my wife. Class at 6:30 p.m. Done at 9:15. Back home, for the last time. Out the door in the morning to in the door at night: 15 hours (which doesn’t even take into account the hours I put in at home grading, preparing for class, and responding to emails). That was a Wednesday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, subtract some of the classes and travel, but add rehearsal for a theatrical production of 12 Angry Men I was directing for my theater company. On top of all my work at the colleges, I adapted scripts, taught dramatic writing classes, directed one-day radio shows, and somehow worked on my own writing, too. Every day of the week was crammed to the breaking point with responsibilities, obligations, and others’ expectations of me, commitments I’d made and had to honor. I’d go as late as I had to.
I wasn’t alone; this is the life of an adjunct instructor. I’ve been fortunate enough to leave that life behind, and now work at just one of those schools, as a full-time professor of English, primarily teaching film. Though I’ve got stability, security, and fewer hours in the car, something about the experience of wall-to-wall work from those days stuck with me. Something deep inside still compels me to push myself as far as I think I can go. And now, especially with the benefit of being settled into a career that drives me, I find Manhunter to be a moving, passionate work about the difficulty of balancing the demands of a job with those of home. It is unburdened by the Lecter-verse, free of Hopkins, Foster, and Demme’s characteristic cinematography. It is a signature Mann work, with that filmmaker’s obsessions—professionalism, duty, duality, pursuit—prominently on display. It is a masterfully crafted investigative thriller, beautiful to look at, and genuinely frightening in many moments. What I didn’t expect, as I revisited the film more, was how much it would continue to tell me about who I am and how I work.
Mann’s Will Graham, as portrayed by Petersen, is a dark, troubled guy, a far cry from Norton’s fair-haired boy scout in Red Dragon. Petersen’s Graham has looked into the deepest, darkest parts of the minds of brutal, psychopathic killers, and has seen too much of himself there. The film’s images are dominated by reflections, shattered and refracted mirrors, panes of glass, and match cutting that repeatedly aligns Graham with his Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan). Even the title is a play on their duality—the Tooth Fairy is a manhunter, in his stalking and killing the families who are his prey, but so is Graham, hunting the killers who take innocent lives to fulfill their beautiful, dark, twisted fantasies.
I’m no FBI profiler. I’m a teacher. I don’t deal with anything close to the darkness that Graham does. I’m fortunate enough to be able to teach students about films like Manhunter for a living, maybe inspiring them to make their own movies in their own basements. But I don’t think you have to work for the FBI to find truth in Graham’s unwavering pursuit of his goal. He is driven to the point of near-madness by his efforts to find the Tooth Fairy, even at the expense of his relationship with his wife Molly (Kim Greist) and his young son, Kevin.
More than anything, Manhunter is about the power of Graham’s mind. His supervisor at the FBI, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), needs the retired Graham to come back to active duty in order to track down the Tooth Fairy. Graham has been injured physically and mentally by his capture of Lecktor, but Crawford knows he won’t be able to find anyone with a mind as penetrating and incisive. The film’s themes of professional precision characterize the early scenes between Crawford and Graham, at the latter’s beach house in Florida; Mann visualizes their mutual respect and commitment to their work through his painterly, symmetrical frames. One of the most striking is a backlit, sunset shot of Crawford and Molly sitting on the house’s balcony, with the camera in the kitchen. Their silhouettes are carved up by stark, black vertical lines, the frames of the sliding glass door. The control of a frame like this parallels the exacting dialogue that comes out of Graham’s mouth, never a wasted word. Endless verbs—driving, charging, running, pursuing, catching, stopping.
The movie stands in awe of Graham’s mental acuity. But it also never fails to confront the danger of that mind, and doesn’t blink at the consequences to Graham’s personal life or his own stability. If Graham doesn’t protect himself from his own mind, he’ll lose everything he loves. He knows all of this, and agrees to help Crawford anyway. He needs it. Molly resents Graham for getting involved in the case; when she and Kevin are put at risk later in the film and whisked away to a safe house, she pleads with Graham to stop. He won’t. The Tooth Fairy won’t stop. Neither can he.
For some of us, this is how it feels to work. I envy the people who go in to the office every day, do what’s asked of them, and head home to relax. I’m not one of those people. I fill my day with as much work as I can fit into the hours available. I routinely take on too much. I always say yes. I juggle projects for my college, for my theater company, for my community, for my online writing, for my academic writing, for my dramatic writing. Every part of my day is pinned to the relentless pursuit of more. It’s not money I’m after—that doesn’t much matter. I’m chasing something else. Like Graham, looking out into the night through a rain-streaked airport lounge window, telling the Tooth Fairy, “It’s just you and me now, sport. And I’m gonna find you, goddamnit.” He stares out across the dark horizon, but Mann deftly tips his hand—Graham sees himself in the window. He’s going out to find the Tooth Fairy, but that’s just a means to finding his own identity.
I write to know myself. I teach to know myself. This isn’t always conscious. Now and then, I find time to reflect on why I’ve done something, usually in the quiet moments at the end of a furious three-week march through any number of responsibilities and commitments (this piece is one of those, by the way). When I get that opportunity, I realize that I’ve learned something about myself. I’ve discovered some deep belief I hold, but hadn’t previously examined. I’ve established some new pillar of me. I’ve helped someone else achieve some fuller potential of their own.
When I watch Manhunter, I think about the power of self-realization, and what it means to have a purpose in life. I wonder how many people figure out what theirs is. I’m endlessly compelled by what I argue is the film’s climax—Graham puts the pieces together, and discovers how to find the Tooth Fairy. There is a conclusion afterward, where the police descend on the killer’s fortress of solitude in the Missouri woods and Graham heroically bursts through a pane of glass to save Reba (Joan Allen) from the Tooth Fairy’s clutches before killing him and ending the pursuit. But that’s all epilogue, as far as I’m concerned.
The real peak of this story is a monologue by Graham in the FBI’s offices in Chicago. Crawford is there, and with time running out before the full moon, when the Tooth Fairy will kill again, he urges Graham to give up, to wait until the next cycle. For Crawford, it is too late to catch the killer. Graham roars at him: “Don’t talk to me about late, pal! I’ll tell you when it’s too fucking late! Until then, we go as late as I wanna take it!” Crawford sulks. Graham takes over, staring into a television screen, running home movies taken of the murdered victims. As Graham begins to piece together the evidence on the screen in front of him, “Graham’s Theme,” a piece of original synthesizer music by the film’s composers Michel Rubini and The Reds, creeps in over the soundtrack. As Graham repeats the clues, it builds. Its heavy droning bass section is matched by its soaring upper tones, as the darkness of Graham’s mind fuses with its brilliance into a transcendent rush of adrenaline. As Graham unlocks the key, drums kick in. Then, a guitar. Here is a mind steadily, assuredly, confidently, building towards the beautiful clarity of an idea. The music climaxes when an agent confirms Graham’s theory to Crawford over the phone. Mann’s camera never leaves Graham. Knowing he’s found it, he steps over to a window, looking out into the Chicago night. He says, “I’m right, aren’t I?” He puts his hand on the window, an echo of the moment in the airport lounge. The music vanishes.
Mann has dramatized a moment of creation. I want that power. I want to find that part of myself. I want to pull something out of the air and make it into something new. This is the impulse that keeps me pushing my own work late into the night. But beyond the time I invest, it is the way I perceive that time. A switch got flipped in me, and now, I am bound to seeing everything I do as a dimension of my working life. Every film or television show I watch is homework for a future course, or a future piece of writing, or future academic conference presentation. Every book I read pushes me deeper into the human condition, but for the purpose of crafting more honest dramatic writing. Every news show I watch gives me more access to social, political, and economic problems that make me a more empathetic teacher, writer, and human being. Every podcast I listen to expands my knowledge about the world, so that I might be prepared to answer more questions from students, help them with more projects, point them in the direction of more research. In Graham’s obsessive desire to know, to solve, to find, I came to know, to solve, and to find what makes me who I am.
With all that I do, I strive for the poetic, lyrical beauty of the transcendent climactic moment in Manhunter, a film that, when I was young, I couldn’t really see. As I got older—and learned more about myself and who I was, but also who I wanted to be—I found something that seemed so deep inside it, but really, was right in front of me, once I knew how to look.