Sympathy for a Devil: Hannibal, Manic Avenger
EMPATHY, everybody knows, can be kind of a mixed blessing. Fine human quality though it may be, it is not obviously useful in pursuits like business and war, which seem to be shaping up as the major occupations of the 21st century. So there’s no reason, really, to be surprised that the movies (and television and commercial fiction) can now, with relative impunity, offer up the once despised psychopath — who feels no empathy — as at least a semiheroic figure, a fulfillment of one of those fantasies that grow like pesky molds in the unfinished basements of our pop-culture souls.
Peter Webber’s “Hannibal Rising,” which opens nationwide on Friday, tells the oddly stirring story of the apprenticeship in homicide of young Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic mass-murdering psychiatrist dreamed up by Thomas Harris in his 1981 novel “Red Dragon” and given flesh, so to speak, by Anthony Hopkins in three hit movies: “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), “Hannibal” (2001) and “Red Dragon” (2002). In all those pictures — and in the first version of “Red Dragon,” Michael Mann’s 1986 “Manhunter,” in which Dr. Lecter is played by Brian Cox — the good doctor is clearly a monster, albeit one who happens to be considerably wittier than the usual run of psychopathic predators. He’s still pretty scary in “Hannibal Rising,” and still reasonably amusing (though the new Hannibal, 22-year-old Gaspard Ulliel, doesn’t spit out his killer bons mots with quite the hissing panache of Mr. Hopkins). But this time we’re supposed to identify with him.
Not wholeheartedly of course — just to the extent that movie audiences do tend to get emotionally engaged with any character who dominates the screen as this teenage Hannibal does. Amid the moral chaos of post-World War II Europe, the young murderer goes about his grisly business (tracking down the slimy Nazi sympathizers who killed and cooked his little sister) virtually unimpeded by official scrutiny; because his victims are war criminals, the investigation remains a little desultory, conspicuously lacking in the desperate race-against-the-clock urgency that usually supplies the suspense in serial-killer melodramas. And without an implacable cop or an anguished profiler to provide a “normal” societal perspective — something, anything, else for a viewer’s fickle affections to latch on to — the monster has you all to himself; and warily, tentatively, gradually, you begin to see the world his way. It’s as if you’d been exposed to a mild, multiplex-specific strain of the Stockholm Syndrome.
Movies in which the predominant point of view is that of a psychopath are fairly rare, for that very reason: commercial filmmakers generally believe that audiences need to identify with somebody in the picture and have not historically felt altogether comfortable assigning that crucial function to cold, ruthless, empathy-challenged murderers. Sixty years ago Charles Chaplin took the risk in “Monsieur Verdoux,” a dark “comedy of murders” about a serial wife-killer — modeled on the famous French Bluebeard, Henri Landru — and not only suffered the first abject financial flop of his career but was also widely reviled as unwholesome and immoral. (Chaplin’s messy personal life and left-leaning politics undoubtedly set him up for that sort of abuse, but his reinvention of the beloved Little Tramp as a smug, self-justifying multiple-murderer obviously didn’t enhance his image.) When Michael Powell, the director of crowd-pleasers like “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus,” and “I Know Where I’m Going,” brought forth the nasty, brilliant “Peeping Tom” (1961), about a sexual psychopath who kills women while photographing them, the British press and public turned on him savagely, and for the rest of his life in the movie business this great filmmaker struggled to find work.
Those cautionary tales suggest that movie audiences have — until recently, anyway — preferred to keep the feral, conscienceless human predator at arm’s length: off to the side, where villains lurk, rather than in the center and in full view, where our heroes are supposed to be. But artists, who often in the practice of their craft come in contact with the chillier, more obsessive aspects of themselves, have inevitably (they just can’t help it) hit on ways to bring that inner beast out into the open, sometimes in the disguise of a fantastic creature like a vampire or a werewolf, and frequently, in the movies, in the more mundane form of the gangster.
Among the protagonists of classic American films, there are no purer psychopaths than Tony Camonte in “Scarface” (1932), who thinks the world is his, and paranoid, mother-fixated, migraine-addled Cody Jarrett in “White Heat” (1949), who believes he’s at the top of the world as he goes up in flames. Tony Soprano, suburban husband and father, is among their many, many heirs. It’s a prolific family.
Such ego-driven monsters, whose values can seem disturbingly similar to those of successful businessmen, are naturally somewhat easier for viewers to tolerate than sexually motivated predators, although the gangster’s ability to recognize the reality of other human beings might not be measurably superior to that of the sex killer. It’s worth noting that Mr. Harris (who also wrote the screenplay of “Hannibal Rising”) has always been careful to keep sex out of the dire complex of murderous impulses that add up to Hannibal Lecter.
In this latest installment of the Lecteriad, Hannibal’s homicides are cast as the deeds of an extremely movie-friendly figure: the relentless, unstoppable and at least arguably righteous avenger. His sister’s assassins are fully as evil as he is, and not many viewers will mourn their violent ends. Hannibal doesn’t, strictly speaking, have to eat his victims too, but, revolting as that is, it’s perhaps marginally less offensive to the moviegoer’s sensibilities than what Ted Bundy liked to do to his.
But why, you may well ask, would a writer or a filmmaker go to so much trouble to cajole the audience into accepting a homicidal maniac as a hero? Sure, pop culture has turned us all into jaded consumers of cheap thrills, connoisseurs of increasingly outré sensation. Still, there have to be simpler ways to make a buck than trying to sell serial murder, seen from the point of view of its perpetrator, as mainstream entertainment.
Back in the ’50s, when the godfather of psychopath chic, the pulp novelist Jim Thompson (“The Killer Inside Me”), and the godmother, Patricia Highsmith (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”), began exploring the strange, flat topography of the unfeeling mind, their readership was not large, and consisted, I suspect, primarily of loners and malcontents, along with a few keen fanciers of literary decadence. But times have changed, and the reason Mr. Harris and others, like the creators of the blithely perverse Showtime serial-killer program “Dexter,” are willing to undertake the hard labor of dressing up a psychopath for mass consumption may be that they’ve identified something new and powerful in the collective subconscious, the dark screen inside our heads.
And that something, I think, is a kind of guilty curiosity about the serene indifference of the psychopath. Even, maybe, a touch of envy, from time to time, of the ease with which a Hannibal or a Dexter negotiates harsh experience, unencumbered by empathy or, indeed, any consideration other than the satisfaction of his own needs. You look around and see people not so different from that doing very nicely for themselves on the world’s battlefield, and you can’t help wondering what their secret is. “Hannibal Rising” may or may not be a significant hit, but it’s unlikely to generate the howls of outrage that greeted “Monsieur Verdoux” and “Peeping Tom.” It will open in hundreds of theaters and hundreds of thousands of moviegoers (at a minimum) will buy tickets, because they really want to know what it feels like not to feel.