‘Hannibal Rising’

In trying to humanize Hannibal Lecter, author/screenwriter Thomas Harris only diminishes him in this prequel.

By: Elise Nakhnikian
   In this age of pop psychology and relentless self- improvement, we like to think that any deviant behavior can be traced back to some childhood trauma. But adding cannibalism to the list may be taking things just a little too far.
   In Hannibal Rising, author/screenwriter Thomas Harris peels off Hannibal Lecter’s unreadable mask to introduce us to the young killer-to-be, a blue-eyed boy hiding out with his parents and beloved little sister outside the family castle in Lithuania during World War II. All is well, in that cereal-commercial way of overly romanticized flashbacks, until the Lecters’ hiding place is discovered — first by Nazis and then by a group of local criminals who use the war as a cover to impose their own miniature reign of terror.
   When this feral band staves off starvation by killing and eating his sister, Hannibal’s heart dies with her. Or so we are solemnly informed later on — not once, which would have been annoying enough, but twice — by the earnest but ineffective Inspector Popil (Dominic West).
   The older Hannibal, as played by Gaspard Ulliel, has an animal cunning and a genius for survival — he evades Popil’s detection without breaking a sweat — but he shows almost none of the scarily intuitive intelligence that made the younger Hannibal so terrifying in the earlier movies. Words are the older Hannibal’s most potent weapon, but while the Hannibal we’ve come to know — as played by both Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins — used his silky, scarily affectless voice to probe people’s psyches and suss out their weaknesses, this Hannibal barely talks at all. Another actor might have made his silences menacing and full of nuance, but Ulliel is too callow. His Hannibal mostly just looks sullen, except when his plump lips curve into a cartoonish rictus of a smile, making him look like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman.
   Like the rehabilitated Terminator in T2, the supernaturally malevolent Hannibal of Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, Hannibal and Manhunter comes back to life in this prequel as a positively chivalrous killing machine, a staunch protector of women and children.
   After a lugubriously paced beginning that takes him through his escape from a Dickensian orphanage and to the home of Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), his gorgeous young — and conveniently widowed — aunt by marriage, the movie switches gears and becomes the story of a vendetta. Hannibal starts by slaughtering a butcher for having shouted an insult at Lady Murasaki. Then he methodically tracks down and murders each of the men who ate his sister.
   In the other Hannibal Lecter movies, the good doctor’s own murder sprees are usually safely in the past — and the future — but Hannibal is the serial killer du jour this time around. We’re right there with him, watching every sadistic twist of the rope or the knife as he works his way through his list with evident satisfaction, often gnawing on some of his victims’ choicer parts after the deed is done.
   That’s bad enough if you’re like me and don’t like seeing people tortured, even in a movie. What’s even more squirm-inducing is that we’re kind of rooting for him.
   Hannibal’s murder of the butcher is shocking, in part because he’s so young and it’s his first onscreen killing, though an earlier one was implied. Besides, you have to admit it was a bit of an overreaction — though Harris and director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) load the dice in Hannibal’s favor by letting us know the butcher sent Jews to their death as a functionary in Vichy France. But as Hannibal plays cat and mouse with the men who killed his sister, they keep turning the tables and nearly getting the drop on him, and each time we see that they’d show him as little mercy as he shows them if he didn’t get to them first. What’s more, at least as seen through Hannibal’s eyes, his victims have hardly a single redeeming virtue between them. You might watch their deaths with disgust, fascination, or some combination of the two, but you won’t feel any more pity or sadness than their psychopathic killer does.
   Only one, Petras Kolnas (Kevin McKidd, Lucius Vorenus of HBO’s Rome series), gets a twinge of regret. By the time Hannibal finds him, Kolnas has a daughter. Since she’s about the age of Hannibal’s sister when she died, Hannibal can relate to his love for her. He uses that understanding to taunt his prey, telling him he’s killed the girl, and Kolnas’ terror is pitiably palpable.
   Not everyone has the stomach for this kind of thing, and those who do sometimes want it wrapped up in a moral. Maybe that’s why Harris tried to humanize his monster this time around, cooking up a cautionary tale about — what exactly? The savagery beneath the skin of civilization? Why you shouldn’t eat a person’s sister right in front of him?
   Whatever. In trying to humanize Hannibal, Harris only diminishes him. Hannibal Rising reduces one of the more memorable villains of modern fiction to just another victim whose inner child has some major issues.
Rated R for strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references