Hannibal Rising (2007)
People love a good villain, and is there any greater villain in modern movies than Hannibal Lector? The flesh-eating, etiquette-minded fiend was most memorably portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. Even though he was only in the film for a whopping 16 minutes (the shortest screen time ever for a Best Actor), Hopkins stole every second. The character has resurfaced in additional movies like 2001’s Hannibal and 2002’s Red Dragon.
The history behind Hannibal Rising is that long-time film producer Dino Di Laurentiis owns the rights to the Hannibal character and essentially told author Thomas Harris, the man behind every Hannibal book, that he was making another movie starring America’s favorite cannibal, and it was going to be a prequel set amidst his boyhood days, and he was going to do it with or without Harris. With a proverbial gun pointed at his head, Harris decided if anyone is going to ruin his character it might as well be himself. He simultaneously wrote a new Hannibal book and a screenplay for it, both tied to be released within a few short months of each other. The results are about what you would expect for an artistic venture born from people wanting more money.
Hannibal Lector is a young kid living in Latvia. His family even has an ancestral castle but this doesn’t matter because it’s 1944 and the Germans and Russians are going at it. His father and mother are mowed down by gunfire as his family flees to a cottage in the woods for protection. Sadly, this will not be the worst thing that happens to Hannibal. A group of deserted soldiers, led by Grutas (Rhys Ifans), finds the cottage and takes refuge in it, hiding from their superiors, the ongoing battles, and the viciously cold winter. Long story short: there’s nothing to eat and the soldiers kill and eat Hannibal’s sister to survive. Flash forward to 1956, and Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is a rebellious Stalinist youth. He escapes his boarding school and heads out to France to find his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). She teaches him about the ways of the samurai and sharpens his fighting skills, because that’s what Asian people do in Hollywood movies. Hannibal is haunted by nightmares of his sister’s murder and his inability to protect her. He vows to find the current whereabouts of the men who took her from him and exact bloody revenge.
I guess when you get down to it I never needed to know the back-story to Hannibal Lector. He was such a dominating, frightening, and fascinating presence in Silence of the Lambs, someone who could worm his way inside your head and download everything he needed to know to exploit you. And yet, the man still adhered to his own set of standards, as Clarice remarked that he only ate the “rude.” He’s like a kinky literary professor. In 2005, Hannibal Lector was declared by the American Film Institute as the greatest film villain . . . ever. What I’m trying to get at is that no explanation for what made Hannibal into the demented figure he is would ever be satisfying. I don’t need to know why Hannibal is how he is, just as I didn’t need to know why Willy Wonka is; they just are. There’s also a logistical quirk: because we know this is a prequel, it means Hannibal Lector is never in any danger. He has to survive to populate more books and movies. Hannibal Rising was doomed to fail the second anxious studio execs got dollar signs in their eyes.
The film really drops the ball by turning the most unique villain in modern literature into a mere creepy kid out for vengeance. Hannibal Rising is a gloomy revenge flick dressed up to feel more astute and highbrow, but it’s nothing but a run at Charles Bronson Death Wish territory. Hannibal tracks down his sister’s killers one by one and plots his bloody revenge, and with each death the film seems to deflate. The character is given a stable of psychological devices you’d find in trashy serial killer page-turners. The fact that he remains moderately sympathetic is a testament our warm feelings for a guy that eats people. Hannibal Rising also ducks risky territory by making the marked men bastards even 10-something years later. They’re either corrupt authority figures or petty criminals; Grutas even runs a houseboat that he cycles sex slaves in and out of. Splendid. Now, it would be truly daring if the film had the courage to show these men as people trying to do right in the world, continually haunted by the choices they made to survive. That would call into question the nature of violence and forgiveness. The film even hints that Hannibal might have unknowingly eaten his sister as well. The psychological ramifications of that could be really interesting. But no, that’s too much, so what we get are a bunch of sneering stock baddies for Hannibal to systematically pick off.
Hannibal Rising shows its agenda with one very telling scene. When young Hannibal is living with his aunt he scours through her collection of samurai art. Then one mask catches his attention and he places it against his face, and wouldn’t you know it, the mask looks very similar to the one he will eventually wear like 40 years later. Why even include this scene? In 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal wore this famous mask for all of one scene. The filmmakers are tipping their hat at what we know with Hannibal; the film is more concerned with reminding us about our memories of a character off screen than the one that’s in the story.
Despite all these failings, Hannibal Rising still manages to be passably entertaining. I credit director Peter Webber (Girl with Pearl Earring) and actor Gaspard Ulliel. Webber keeps the pacing light for a two-hour movie and adds a fine Gothic feel with a crisp, autumn look. He tries hard to bring some art to an overly glorified revenge flick. Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) is something of a minor revelation. He digs deep into his character and finds a perverse pleasure in his portrayal of the cinema icon. He’s scary and weird but manages to still be grossly entertaining even when he’s doing gross things. It’s the sheer power of his performance that makes the film worth watching. I didn’t see this coming from the cute, boyish lovesick kid from Engagement, but Ulliel creates a clockwork-like performance of sinister eeriness. When he glares, his eyes burning with sharp intensity, he has this little dimple on one side of his face, like a permanent mark from evil grinning. He has a terrific look to him and I’d dare say there would be plenty of surprised moviegoers that find themselves thinking Hannibal Lector is a tad sexy. Hopefully Ulliel is destined for better things after mastering English so well, something his Engagement co-star seems to still be struggling with in American movies.
There really is no reason for this movie to exist. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just entirely unnecessary. It’s passably entertaining and has some grisly gore to it but much of it is pure genre. I’m more interested with the older, wiser Hannibal than this young pup. In the pursuit of the almighty dollar, Hannibal Rising sure wants to be a tasty dish. The problem is that this dish has already gone cold.
Nate’s Grade: C