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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.