Hungry for More
There’s no question that The Silence of the Lambs is a great movie. The makers of Hannibal certainly think so; otherwise they wouldn’t invoke its memory every chance they get. It’s a quality that’s oddly ahead of its time, portending modern sequels like Jurassic World and The Force Awakens that get most of their mileage from milking their beloved predecessors. Hannibal’s most shameless reference is the title character’s multiple utterances of the famous line, “Hello, Clarice,” which was never actually said in The Silence of the Lambs but plowed its way into pop culture history anyway. The charitable interpretation of this Mandela effect-made-real is that it’s a knowing joke on the part of the filmmakers, though it’s easier to dismiss it – and the rest of Hannibal’s blatant throwbacks – as pandering.
Hannibal takes place ten years after the first movie. Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, doing an impressive job in a generic role) is still with the FBI, but after a botched raid she’s unfairly held responsible and suspended by her superiors. Meanwhile, the wealthy child molester Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), who was horrifically disfigured by Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) years ago, attempts to use Clarice as bait to draw the sophisticated serial killer out of hiding. Verger’s plan works, and soon Hannibal sends Clarice a letter which leads her to discover that he is living in Italy under a false identity. Thus begins a three-way game of cat and mouse, with each party trying to stay one step ahead of the next.
While The Silence of the Lambs was an uncommonly classy horror-thriller, Hannibal has no such pretensions. The movie embraces a pulpier, more melodramatic tone, arguably for the better. It seems resigned to the fact that it has no hope of living up to its near-flawless predecessor, and instead makes the shrewd decision to go for cheap thrills. The subtlety of the first movie is nowhere to be found; Hannibal takes its forbearer’s elements and sensationalizes every one of them. The insidious depiction of misogyny has been replaced by overt sexual harassment from Clarice’s slimy co-worker Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) and others. And none of the villains have the chilling plausibility of Buffalo Bill; now they’re larger-than-life cartoons, none broader than Lecter himself.
Hopkins seems keenly aware of this, dialing up the ham factor from his comparatively restrained previous performance. The change works because it fits the movie’s parodic treatment of his character: this time around, Hannibal’s abilities to evade his pursuers, dispatch his victims, and slip under the radar are no less than superhuman. How else do you explain the international flights he takes despite being on the FBI’s most wanted list, or the fact that he was never spotted in Italy despite wearing no disguise whatsoever? But even in this lesser, sillier capacity, Hopkins remains a joy to watch, chewing up the scenery like it’s one of the psychotic doctor’s victims. The only other memorable performance comes from Oldman, who manages to slather an extra layer of creepiness onto an already-repulsive character.
Hannibal’s lack of interest in the cerebral allows it to engage in several gruesome spectacles, which are indulgently lurid but undeniably effective in director Ridley Scott’s capable hands. Most indelible is the movie’s stomach-churning climax, a masterfully staged set piece which gives new meaning to the term “brain food.” There’s no denying that Hannibal is schlock, but it’s well-made schlock; and as low as its pleasures may be, they’re difficult to resist. If The Silence of the Lambs was a five-star meal, Hannibal is pure butter-drenched popcorn.