The leader of the orphanage where Hannibal Lecter ends up laments, "You're always hurting the bullies." He claims Lecter doesn't respect the "human pecking order." If someone tries to abuse Hannibal -- or some other helpless person -- Hannibal rides in on his silver stallion, saves the day, then takes his sidekick Tonto out to Starbucks.
OK, not quite. But this movie, somewhat like Hannibal before it, is interested in recovering Hannibal Lecter -- in making him into a vigilante serial killer hero who sticks up for the downtrodden. Like a cannibalistic Robin Hood.
We'll pause here to allow you to imagine Bryan Adams singing "When a Man Eats a Woman."
This impulse to make a serial killer into the hero is my major beef with this movie. I do want to say that I enjoyed the film. I'm a fan of Hannibal Lecter; his blend of suave sensuality, creepy brilliance, and cold calculation makes him, I admit it, rather sexy to me. And Gaspard Ulliel, who reprises Anthony Hopkins's role, manages this cool, creepy sophistication with panache. But I find the whole premise of the film troubling. Before I say more about that, let's get in some plot summary.
In this film, we get Lecter's backstory. It's 1944 Lithuania, and the Nazis are encroaching on Castle Lecter; the whole clan -- Hannibal, his parents, his little sister Mischa, and various domestic servants -- flee to a lodge in the woods, hoping to escape detection there. A firefight leads to the death of the parents and the domestics, leaving little Hannibal and Mischa to fend for themselves. Things get even worse fast when a band of opportunistic thieves shows up in the midst of a terrible snowstorm. They loot the lodge and use it as a place to stay while conditions outside get progressively worse. Food is in short supply. What happens next is a bit of a blur -- for Hannibal and for us -- but we're given some clues. One of the men, Grutas, holds the bloody carcass of a bird to his face, gnawing out every drop of blood and meat, and looks at the children, saying, "We must eat or die." Hannibal tries, frantically and unsuccessfully, to protect his little sister, but he emerges, some time later, from the woods -- alive, and without her.
Hannibal thus spends the rest of the film learning to kill, practicing his technique on bullies that cross his path, waiting for the opportunity to kill the men who ate his sister. Hannibal then becomes a noble vigilante, pursuing war criminals that the system cannot catch or convict, doling out good, old-fashioned, eye-for-an-eye justice. In this sense, Hannibal isn't a monster, or even amoral. He's uber-moral, a divine agent sent in to right a world gone mad.
And this movie is only the latest step in Hannibal's move toward respectable vigilante status. You might remember that, in Hannibal, Lecter only kills serious creeps like child abusers and misogynistic bosses; he also saves Clarice's life at one point. Certainly the film stops short of Harris's book, which has Lecter and Clarice run away together for a life of opera and serial killer sex, but the impulse of making Lecter into something resembling a hero is still there.
I have two problems with this. One, this plays very fast and loose with Lecter's history as set out by previous films and books. Lecter -- in Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon -- is perfectly happy to serve as serial killer mentor to murderers who have no such moral agenda. He aids and abets men who skin women so they can wear a woman-coat and men who kill whole families (little sisters included) without the slightest indication of moral purpose or goal. If Hannibal is so anti-bully, shouldn't he also be against these killers, who murder totally innocent people for no good reason? What it seems like to me is that Thomas Harris, author of these novels, recognized a cash cow after the huge success of the Silence of the Lambs film; the recovery of Hannibal then began, in Hannibal and now Hannibal Rising -- but this recovery ignores Hannibal's highly problematic behavior in the other two books/films. So, my first problem with this is that it's inconsistent.
My second problem is that I just find it troublesome -- this urge to take a sadistic murderer and make him into a hero. I'm not trying to claim that this is a new or unique development. We, as a culture, seem to go through cycles of loving the vigilante (as the source of a justice the government is powerless to supply) and hating him (as someone who believes himself dangerously above the rules that the rest of us need to follow). We seem to be in a love-the-vigilante period, and slasher film villains are following suit: not just with Hannibal Lecter, but with Jigsaw from the Saw films, and with Dexter from the Showtime series of the same name.
C'mon people. Say it with me: "The serial killer is not a role model."
Especially the cannibalistic serial killer.
Taking vicious, creative, sadistic murderers and making them heroes is not my cup of tea. Though, certainly, I am a horror fan; I just like my murder and mayhem unmixed with vigilante heroism.
The acting in the film is pretty good. Surprisingly so, actually, when it comes to teenage Hannibal. His Hannibal is exquisitely intense and sensual. At one point, he brings a glove-covered hand to his mouth to lick off the blood; I got shivers. Certainly, he has some big boots to fill, but he does a solid job; as solid a job as I could imagine any actor doing. The supporting actors, Hannibal's various family members and the evildoers, also do a fine job, but they're not the point of a film like this.
If the film isn't brilliant -- which it isn't -- it's still perfectly entertaining slasher fare. There're some weird moments and inconsistencies, like when teenage Lecter starts talking to a faded old picture of his dead parents. Lecter, even when young, seems far too self-possessed and far too cold to fall into such sentimentality. It comes across as cheesy. But the film generally succeeds in being atmospheric, brutal, and entertaining. And watching Gaspard strut his dangerously intense stuff is a good time in itself.
Thus, if you don't mind the whole "serial killer = hero" shtick, you'll probably enjoy the film a great deal. If you do mind, but you're still a Hannibal Lecter fan, you'll enjoy the film a fair amount. It's a respectable entry into the franchise.