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Reflection and Perception in Manhunter

I recently rewatched my favorite film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels, the 1986 picture Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann. One of my favorite aspects of the film is Mann’s superb visuals. Every scene is carefully laid out and shot masterfully, perfectly capturing the eerie atmosphere. Mann’s eighties stylization is at its peak in this film, color coded lighting abounds, especially in the cobalt blue night scenes and obligatory beachside shots (this is a Michael Mann movie, after all). However, one visual element in this film is most important, tying directly into the structure of the plot, and that is symmetry.  

The opening shot of profiler Will Graham (played by William Petersen) and his former colleague Jack Crawford (played by the late great Dennis Farina) shows the two men sat atop a dead tree, the ocean behind them. They are framed symmetrically, like a mirror image. There are shots exactly like this throughout the film, like the lobby of the Atlanta Mariott Marquis passing by outside Graham’s elevator, or the shadowy square where the FBI attempts a sting operation to catch the film’s killer, “The Tooth Fairy.” It’s not just symmetry in framing, however, since the film is structurally symmetrical, with the first half focusing upon Graham and the FBI and the second half centered on Francis Dollarhyde (The Tooth Fairy, played by Tom Noonan).

Effectively, Dollarhyde and Graham mirror one another. Which is fitting, since Dollarhyde’s modus operandi revolves entirely around perceiving, with chunks of broken mirrors being used to disfigure his victims and the victims themselves being arranged as audiences to his macabre displays. Dollarhyde’s ultimate goal is to be perceived as a god, and his killings fuel that dream. Graham’s talent is his ability to enter the headspace of the killers he pursues, and as he uncovers more and more of Dollarhyde’s twisted personality, Graham finds himself dangerously involved in the case. As the film progresses, Graham speaks to his own reflection as if it were the killer, and it is more and more clear he will personally pursue Dollarhyde, despite promising his family he would stay as detached as possible from the killer. The film follows Dollarhyde in its second half, and he too is eagerly watching Graham’s progress in the investigation (through front page articles in a tabloid). Like Graham, Dollarhyde experiences a crisis in self-perception as he begins a breakneck pace romance with a blind coworker, Reba (played by Joan Allen). It is fitting that the woman who throws a wrench in Dollarhyde’s plans is incapable of the type of perception he so desires.

In the climax of the film, Graham and Crawford are rapidly closing in on Dollarhyde’s home, while he prepares to murder Reba. Ironically, Dollarhyde turns on Reba because of his misperception of her interaction with another coworker as infidelity. Graham sees this happening from outside, and immediately leaps through Dollarhyde’s kitchen window, effectively shattering the mirror that has separated their stories over the course of the film. After a brief scuffle and shootout, Dollarhyde lies dead, with the pool of blood beneath him making him resemble the Francis Bacon painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, which he has tattooed across his chest. Graham, Dollarhyde’s mirror image, is the one who finally sees him as he wanted to be perceived all along. Manhunter is an elevation of the psychological thriller genre, with its rich stylistic elements playing into the psychologies of its characters. The film examines the toll of Graham’s reflective profiling on his person as he perceives a clearer and clearer image of the man he is hunting. Fantastic stuff! It is one of Michael Mann’s greatest (and easiest to watch) films, in my opinion, and a great choice for late night enjoyment as we all approach Halloween.

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The Importance of Costuming in No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men is my favorite film from the Coen brothers for several reasons. It is probably the best adaptation of a book I have ever seen. It stays remarkably true to Cormac McCarthy’s original novel, and when the Coen brothers stray from the original text, it is always an improvement, not a detraction. Despite having seen it several times, No Country for Old Men keeps me at rapt attention with a rich atmosphere of pure dread, heightened by the film’s great sound design and near complete lack of a score. The action scenes are some of the most intense ones ever put to film, in my opinion. Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem, remains one of the most iconic antagonists ever put to film. The Coen brothers apply so much polish in this production, that nearly every detail seems deliberate and purposeful. One of the most important details in No Country for Old Men, one that I appreciate especially, is the purposeful costume design of its characters. The film’s costuming, as I will explain, reflects not only the backgrounds of its characters, but the greater themes of the story as well.

            The film’s false protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, is perfectly costumed as a southwestern everyman. The first time the audience sees him, he sports a pair of dark wash Levis, a tan check pattern western shirt, Larry Mahan cowboy boots, and a straw stetson hat. He blends into the rocks of the volcanic ridge he is hunting antelope from, his fashion is that perfect for life in the desert. Throughout the film he cycles through a series of western shirts, and during his nighttime visit to the site of the desert gun battle, Llewelyn dons a Carhartt chore coat. His costume design is directly in line with the audience’s expectations for the average Texan blue collar worker, and the same goes for Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, who aligns with our expectations for a Texan lawman. He too wears a western shirt, adorned with a sheriff’s star and Terrell County sheriff patches, alongside a pair of brown trousers and boots, and finally topped off with a white straw Stetson. Like most police officers, he accessorizes with a leather gun belt. Both Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell are clearly at home in the west. Their outfits incorporate a lot of the natural colors of the desert landscape they call home, and foreshadow their clash with the very dark and unnaturally costumed hitman, Anton Chigurh.

During the film’s opening monologue, the audience sees several shots of beautiful Texas vistas at sunrise. This establishes the film’s color palette of earth tones, beiges and browns, with some green in the desert scrub and vegetation. We are then introduced to Anton Chigurh, who is immediately at odds with both the desert landscape and its inhabitants. His dark clothing nearly renders him a silhouette, contrasting with the tan uniform and white hat of the deputy escorting him into his squad car. The film takes place in the summertime, yet Chigurh is always clad in an extremely dark navy trucker jacket. He wears this alongside a pair of navy pants and a dark brown shirt. Unlike nearly every other male character in the film, Chigurh wears no hat. Chigurh’s outfit eschews the western details of the film’s protagonists in favor of strong, straight lines. His ensemble establishes him as alien to the earth tone world of Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell, and hints at his strange, violent nature before he commits a single crime on screen. Even his boots differentiate him from the other characters. He wears dark alligator skin boots (ostrich skin in the novel), a rather flamboyant choice, but one that further separates him from the other characters’ traditional style. The boots line up well with his unusual haircut, an odd mop of hair that places him more in line with the discoes of the seventies than the Chihuahuan desert.

His entire look is confusing, and aligns with the protagonists’ confusion at his motives and rationale. Elements of the outfit like the unseasonable denim jacket hint at Chigurh’s almost inhuman toughness, he can simply ignore the heat which the natives alter their clothing to adapt to. In fact, whereas Moss and Bell’s outfits seem to reflect the pale Texas sunlight, Chigurh’s dark ensemble is designed to absorb that light. The Coens effectively costumed Anton to be the antithesis of the world Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell believe they live in, he is a visual representation of the titular country.

Then, there is the middleman of the cast: Carson Wells, played by Woody Harrelson. Like Anton Chigurh, his outfit avoids earth tones. His grey suit stands out fairly well in the desert, and this hints at him being a fellow hitman to Chigurh. Unlike Chigurh, however, he has adopted elements of western style. Wells’s suit bears pointed western yokes, he wears a hat (felt, in contrast with the straw hats of the protagonists), and his shirts snap up, like Llewelyn’s. Wells’s costume is a middle ground between the shadowy and strange attire of Chigurh, and the familiar everyman earth tones Moss sports. His role in the film is thus, that of a junction between Anton Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss.

To say No Country for Old Men has been influential upon my personal style would be a massive understatement. I fell in love with western clothing because of this film. I find myself poring over the shirt racks in thrift stores desperately seeking a snapshirt resembling the ones Moss sports, visiting western stores in search of a Stetson like his, and sporting Levis just as he did. But it is impossible to perfectly replicate his outfit, as every aspect was carefully crafted by the film’s crew to reflect Moss’s personality and the ideas he symbolized (I also can’t grow facial hair, which means I will never sport Moss’s amazing moustache). In studying the costuming of No Country for Old Men, it is clear that every character’s costume is carefully tailored to suit both their personal character and to reflect the themes of the film. No Country for Old Men is essentially a story of stubborn people being unable to understand the nature of the unstoppable evil lurking in their world. The western, antiquated earth tones of stubborn Texans meeting the unnatural and alien navy of Chigurh’s denim jacket and his bizarre disco haircut. Effectively, the Coen brothers used characters’ costumes to highlight this contrast between good and evil in a way that blends seamlessly with the time and place the film occurs in.