Let it be said: Ralph Fiennes is an extremely capable, even great, actor, but as Francis Dolarhyde, the twisted, enigmatic serial killer of Red Dragon, he’s nothing special. In broad strokes, his performance is effective and believable, but what results is a rather one-note portrayal of a demented, schizoprenic victim of child abuse. What’s lacking is any sense of pathos, so the film is reduced to surface pleasures: a perfunctory thriller without an emotional center.

Now, consider Tom Noonan in Michael Mann’s earlier adaptation of the same novel, Manhunter. Noonan isn’t merely great as Dolarhyde, but offers a performance so complex and nuanced that it’s just about impossible to imagine anybody else in the role. Noonan, who stands a gangly 6’7 with broad shoulders and a massive cranium, is first of all simply easier to buy as the character, by virtue of his distinctive appearance. He’s physically imposing, but not visibly athletic, and wears a weathered, brooding face, with the added touch of a cleft palate scar for his character. Fiennes, in comparison, comes off as an athletic jock who’s been given a Halloween makeover – at best a slasher villain, but never the force of danger and evil Noonan’s Dolarhyde embodies. And neither Red Dragon nor Fiennes deigns to offer any indication of the complexity of emotions which guide Dolarhyde’s horrific actions. Dolarhyde isn’t merely a monster, but rather a human being who does monstrous things. Nowhere is that emotional complexity more evident than in the magnificent scene below:



After taking his blind coworker Reba out for a date the previous night (after which they have sex), Dolarhyde approaches the building where Reba lives and finds her being escorted to the door by their boss. This innocuous act gives way to something more piercing, as the two begin to kiss in the light of the doorstep. Dolarhyde, who is watching in the shadows across the street, is torn apart as he witnesses this seeming betrayal, but it’s revealed shortly to be an act wholly imagined. In reality, Dolarhyde’s boss removes some pollen from Reba’s eyelashes, but even this benign act is enough to spark Dolarhyde’s intensely jealous vision.

One of the film’s repeated motifs is eyes. Reba, with whom Dolarhyde shares a brief but touching romance, is blind; unable to see his physical flaws, she is taken in by his surprising tenderness, which we are able to see stems as much from Dolarhyde’s own fear and lack of confidence as it does any romantic touch. When Dolarhyde kills, he places shards of glass in the eyes of his victims, which symbolically prevents them from seeing him but also reflect his own hideous spectre back for him to witness. These victims, at first thought to be anonymous by the FBI agents attempting to track him, are eventually discovered to be chosen from the videotapes Dolarhyde processes at his job in a video lab. (In turn, Dolarhyde videotapes all of his crimes, an obvious nod to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the spiritual and thematic progenitor of this film.) Dolarhyde, then, is a man for whom the act of seeing, and being seen, is a demeaning and deeply scarring invasion of privacy. Reba, with her inability to see, is an innocent – but Dolarhyde’s own inability to see what is really happening, blinded by his white-hot passion, casts her in a new light, and he spends much of the rest of the film tormenting her.

The song playing on the soundtrack while this occurs – The Prime Movers’ “Strong As I Am” – is admirably sincere and straightforward in complementing the emotions of this scene. 80s pop music is often lamented for its bombast, but nothing else would suit such a scene, in which Dolarhyde’s emotions – his anger, fear, jealousy, sadness and self-hatred – spill out all at once, spurred by something that is to our eyes completely inconsequential. The lyrics are just as on the nose, reflective of Dolarhyde’s self-awareness (Strong as I am/ There’s something about this thing that scares me) and self-loathing (See me as I really am), his blind jealousy (The love you would not share grows tired of waiting), and the unrelenting danger he presents to innocent victims (Will I leave them? I say no).

Noonan manages to convey all of these emotions with incredible efficiency. There’s not a wasted movement here; he says all he needs with subtle facial expressions, and a quiet act of physical violence (in which he tears the fabric from his van’s dashboard). The intensity of his subsequent walk to Reba’s door is equally striking in its precision, as is the moment where he snatches his boss from behind and dispatches him with two quick gunshots. What’s most impressive here is the balance of these moments, in which Noonan’s facial expressions in the van convey as much about his character as his unfeeling brutality. Likewise, Mann’s stylistic choices – his use of darkness and light, and his brilliantly apt choice of song – say as much about Dolarhyde and the film itself as do the physical staging and action. What appears at first to be a heart-on-its-sleeve 80s thriller gives way to something much more complex and thoughtful; likewise, as Noonan might at first be presumed to be an unfeeling monster, so does his character give way to something much deeper and more human.

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