Wednesday, October 27, 2010


(Michael Mann, USA, 1986)

The latest stop on my Mann retrospective. A thoroughly engrossing serial killer film, as well as a well-wrought story about obsession and identity. It's also incredibly visually rich. You can see a lot of the tropes of serial killer films getting their start with this picture - the psychological profiling, the arch-mastermind villain of Hannibal Lecktor, the evil misfit of Francis Dollarhyde - who is offered a near-miss shot at redemption. It's far more impressionistic and analytic than most of Mann's oeuvre, playing with subjectivity in a way that feels totally unique and comes across as pretty damn unsettling. As usual, Mann has a tendency to overplay his hand in the atmosphere department, pushing some of the scenes too far into the stylistic and emotional stratosphere. But the overall impression is deeply affecting - a very scary and suspenseful movie. Philosophically, it doesn't delve as deeply as it could - another Mann limitation, but it does successfully toy with the opposition between the American ideals of Normal and Aberrant. This time, the criminal archetype is beyond the pale; we're talking pre-De Niro existential sexiness. Noonan's Dollarhyde is a portrayed as a monster, but due care is given to his potential for redemption, even if he never achieves it. This is in keeping with Mann's social and legal outsiders, who share a commonly tragic fate. The tragic paradox, for Mann's characters, is that they only feel truly alive while outside the trappings of the social contract, but they are always tempted to return to it, and this is the impulse that inevitably leads to their undoing. Mann's temptation is to Romanticize his characters, but ultimately he finds their fate tragic, not heroic. Here, the protagonist is the hero and the villain, with Dollarhyde being a kind of stand-in for the darker impulses he keeps well hidden when he's not chasing serial killers.

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