Manhunter (1986)

illustration by Tom Ralston

When Manhunter begins, Special Agent Will Graham is already traumatized. 

Based on Red Dragon, the first of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector novels, Michael Mann’s 1986 masterpiece first finds the bronzed and brooding Graham (William Petersen) on a white-sand beach. With him is his ex-boss, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), who’s come to the Florida Keys to beg him to come out of retirement and track down a serial killer, a slaughterer of families who has no discernable MO. It wouldn’t be the first time. Hannibal Lecktor—as his surname is spelled in Mann’s screenplay—the cannibal psychiatrist upon whom a billion-dollar franchise has hinged since 1981, has been behind bars for three years thanks to Graham, although putting him there ended the special agent’s forensics career. He has the scars to prove it. 

You don’t need me. I wouldn’t be useful to you anymore, Jack,” argues Graham, played with a golden, dissociative emptiness by Petersen. He wants to believe he won’t leave one of Mann’s trademark tropical paradises—blue sky, blue water, blond wife—where he passes the time in tiny, mauve swim trunks, fixing boat motors and rescuing baby sea turtles. 

“That’s not entirely true, Will. It’s the way you think.” Crawford’s dressed for the office, his brown jacket slung over his side of the driftwood. At turns avuncular, fatherly, and even motherly with his pleas, threats, and guilt trips, he takes his time with Graham. Though he guesses they will only have until the next full moon before another family is taken, Crawford knows that he will come. The way he thinks—a mechanism distinguished by not just an eidetic memory but the remarkable ability to understand and anticipate the next moves of serial killers—comes with a conscience that forces him to deploy it.

Petersen’s Graham radiates fragility like a kind of atmosphere, one that neither Crawford nor said blond wife, Molly (Kim Greist), can pierce. Foreshadowing the soulful stoics for which Mann has since become known (De Niro in Heat, Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans), Manhunter’s lead is more likely to be found gazing over a lonely cityscape, or into his own reflection, than making eye contact. Drawing both awe and scorn from the detectives and policemen that Crawford has convinced him to rejoin, he’s monitored back in D.C. like a sickly child, dismissed as “ridiculous”—as the screenplay notes—and gossiped about by mental health professionals. The only thing Graham’s colleagues at the FBI talk about more than the Tooth Fairy, as they’ve nicknamed their killer (because of the bite marks he leaves on his corpses, and because, well, isn’t there something just a little fruity about needing to kill a woman before you fuck her…?), is his emotional state. More often spoken of than to, like the Tooth Fairy himself, Graham is not like other cops. He is not even like other people. 

Red Dragon’s epigraph comes from Alphonse Bertillon, the 19th-century French police officer who developed anthropometry, a pseudoscience used to identify criminals based on their facial characteristics: “One can only see what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind.” If normal cops catch normal criminals, then abnormal cops are needed for the most abnormal of offenders. It could only have been Will Graham who put Lecktor (Brian Cox, in Mann’s iteration) behind bars, identifying him as much by deduction—after noticing a print of the Renaissance medical diagram, Wound Man, which depicts injuries matching those of one of the victims, in Lecktor’s office—as by intuition, in itself a kind of genius. “What he has is empathy and projection,” Dr. Sidney Bloom (Paul Perri), a forensic psychologist, explains to Crawford. “He can assume your point of view and mine, and some other points of view that scare and sicken him.” 

The self-proclaimed empath has lately become an internet joke, especially among queers. Watching Graham struggle to repress his panic while questioning Lecktor in his cell at the Chesapeake Hospital for the Criminally Insane, one wonders, only a little ironically, if hyperempathy would have as much appeal if we knew its real psychic cost. As the trendy, wishful-seeming empath phenomenon illustrates, it’s tempting to oversimplify empathy’s cultural production. What does our ability to empathize with others say about our own feelings, desires, and, ultimately, actions? 

The answer to this depends, in no small part, on who you are. While I avoid gender analyses that fail to consider other axes of identity and oppression, I think it’s safe to say that, for women, empathy is broadly normalized, regardless of whether the altruism it may lead to is in the woman in question’s best interest. We recall Buffalo Bill, another Harris character, inspired in part by real-life serial killer Ted Bundy, who wore a cast to lure helpful co-eds to their deaths, like a killdeer gone carnivore. In contrast, for men—especially straight ones—empathy is found to be unnatural, its expression either emasculating or superhuman. In Graham’s case, it is both: As a serial killer specialist, he is a hero under constant suspicion, the emotional sensitivity that saved his life from Lecktor’s knife implicating him anew with the Tooth Fairy that stalks America’s white, middle-class families. 

This isn’t to say that Graham takes pride in his unique talent. Reading crime scenes for clues to inclinations that he shares with his quarry, he clings to his “learned values of decency and propriety,” as Red Dragon tells us, to distinguish his own desires from those of Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy. He is “shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams,” viewing his own mentality “as grotesque but useful, like a chair made of antlers.” But if this violence, or the potential for it, was his only deviation, he might at least remain within the bounds of what a masculine—if not entirely normal—man might do or want. It’s Graham’s empathic ability that makes his family, his boss, and the American public following along through the tabloids wonder just how different he is from the Tooth Fairy, and from Lecktor before him; and it’s his status as a victim, in a culture where victims are often the first to be blamed, that makes them question if what happened was unavoidable, or even deserved.

I think it’s obvious what I’m building toward: Like most of the serial killer thrillers it’s said to vanguard, Manhunter smacks of gender. Our hardened hero is not just softened by his traumatic past, but broken by it, his manhood warped by the terror that now governs him, by his almost romantic fixation on the killer he’s yet to find—made all the more dreamy by Mann’s painterly metropolises and blue-lit love scenes—and, most importantly, by the unease he evokes as a survivor of the exceptionalized, and highly gendered, form of violence popularized by the now-ubiquitous genre of true crime. Horror’s often muddled conflation of primal fears, trauma, and weird genders1 (not to mention the franchise’s storied transmisogyny) is fundamental to what I, as a trans person, experience as Manhunter’s transmasculine sensibility. While Mann’s script is uninterested in deconstructing the queerphobia of its world—from the cops who first go after “the K-Y cowboys and the leather bars” when someone is murdered, to the homophobic baiting of the Tooth Fairy in order to draw him out of hiding—it’s confident about the emotional murkiness of Graham’s relationships with other men, in particular the ones he’s after in his capacity as a special agent. Simultaneously repulsed and captivated, Graham’s conflicted fascination with the Tooth Fairy resembles the covetous fear we often see directed at non-normative genders on screen, itself an extension of the cis gaze that fetishizes, reviles, and hyper-surveils our bodies as trans people in real life.2

Of course, Graham can’t escape this gaze, either, though he’s clever enough to leverage it against the Tooth Fairy, as he does when he leaks to the press that the killer is a “homosexual” who “[molests] all his male victims” in an attempt to provoke him into revealing himself. Graham understands—as do we all, at varying levels of awareness—that queerness is co-created between the institutions that enforce gendered norms and the individuals who violate them. But queer-coding doesn’t just happen to villains (though we ought not make the mistake of forgetting who is permitted the mantle of victimhood and who is denied it). Those around Graham balance a paradoxical concern for his safety with the unspoken fear of his complicity with the killers he hunts—as if he enjoys being able to relate to them using “the other thing,” as Crawford squeamishly refers to his talent in Red Dragon. Graham himself recognizes that, while cruel, these fears aren’t exactly unwarranted. In entering serial killers’ “fantasy worlds,” as Petersen puts it in Head Games, the booklet specially commissioned to accompany Manhunter’s DVD release in 2001,3 Graham must risk the possibility of never returning. With this cop and his killers, where understanding ends and simpatico begins is never clear. Like gender, Graham’s desires have the unsettling tendency to flood the river, jump the track. 

“Hard to believe there’s a Thomas Harris adaptation for every stage of a transsexual’s life,” writer Colette Arand recently joked, and with Manhunter’s Graham, I can’t help but make my own contribution to the now-clichéd category of trans person sees themself in cis horror. (Though, come to think of it, I don’t know whether Arrand sees in Graham a tortured egg, a longsuffering trans man, or someone else entirely.) Like I sometimes feel myself to be, Graham is a victim of gender, his identity complicated and endangered by emotions that aren’t meant for his body. Arousing confusion, hostility, and desire from within his PTSD perma-fugue (visually reinforced by Mann’s skyscrapers, darkrooms, and swamps, all agloam like distant tubes of neon), Graham’s transmasc vibes are specific yet polymorphous; I’d wager that I’m not the only flavor of trans person who might relate to the way Graham is forced to be hypervigilant regarding others’ perceptions of his body, about which everyone seems to feel a sense of ownership—from Lecktor’s lecherous remarks about his Florida tan, to his colleagues’ skin-crawling inquiries about the scars that mark the good doctor’s disemboweling (located, coincidentally, in the same place that many transmasculine people have incurred our so-called “irreversible damage”). 

A box-office snooze that became a cult classic almost overnight, Manhunter has accrued the popular laurels to match its critical ones, and for good reason. Beloved for its stunning visual framing, its thematic and narrative symmetry, the love-it-or-hate-it diegetic soundtrack of electronica, pop, and classic ‘60s rock, and the original and superior Hannibal Lecktor—the daffy, shark-eyed Cox, running away with his paltry 16 minutes of screentime—Manhunter’s latter-day Twitter popularity feels, to me, inevitable. There’s a lot to love; Mann himself recognized his third feature as a rare, transcendent example of film when “story, images, and sound all collide in a special way.”

But what keeps me returning to the best film by action-drama’s auteur-in-residence is Graham himself. Mann’s script and direction infuse his streetcorner existentialist, as Head Games refers to him, with butch yearning, and Petersen juxtaposes his own boyishness with studied bits of machismo, like the way he speaks aloud to the Tooth Fairy he’s begun to build in his mind over the course of his investigation: “Sport,” he calls him, and “sonofabitch,” as well as the utterly unnatural “my man.” For all that he is Manhunter’s hero—spoiler alert: He gets his man—Graham is fundamentally a meditation on failed masculinity, one that exposes a Butlerian understanding of gender as a thing that is as real as it is performative, as individual as it is communally produced. Though a straight cis man (and a cop, to boot, the natural enemy of transsexuals), Graham shares this with trans fans of horror: He has to get comfortable with finding himself within the monstrous if he is ever to move beyond it. 

  1. From Psycho (1960), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Sleepaway Camp (1983), to Let the Right One In (2008) and Titane (2021).
  2. These experiences are inextricable from other aspects of identity, including race, class, and ability, as well as gender within the trans umbrella.
  3. My girlfriend, also a Manhunter superfan, got me a copy for my birthday.