Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Fear, Manhunter and William Petersen

Watched bits of Fear on TV last night -- this being the late 1990s film about a father trying to protect his teenage daughter, and the rest of the family, from her possibly psychotic boyfriend (a Hindi movie along the same lines was recently made, with Amitabh Bachchan and Bipasha Basu -- I forget the title). Have seen Fear before - it used to be telecase ad infinitum on AXN - and find it strangely compelling. Of course, it’s flawed in some very obvious ways (as most "strangely compelling" things are). Towards the end it degenerates into vigilante porn, almost, with gratuitous servings of machismo. But it never ceases to be interesting. Parts of the movie, especially the climax where the family is terrorised in their own house by the psycho and his leering goons, reminded me of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which I saw just a few weeks ago (and which is a seminal example of the mild mannered family man-turns vigilante movie). Incidentally, both films also have a visceral, cruelly unsparing shot of a slaughtered family pet: the strangulated cat in Straw Dogs, the decapitated doggie in Fear.

Yes, the point, the point. Much of my interest in this film has to do with William Petersen, a superb actor who has worked a lot in television in the past couple of decades but somehow never had a movie career of any significance. He plays the dad here and, despite being nearly 50 now and a little pudgy, he retains much of his trademark intensity: a quality I first saw in Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter. That film was based on Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon; it was made 5 years before Silence of the Lambs and I still think it’s the best of the "Hannibal Lecter movies" (though Lecter, played here by Brian Cox, appears only in two and a half scenes). This isn’t just hip revisionism; Manhunter is a darkly stylish film that is almost unbearably tense and manages to chill without being explicitly gory. And it owes much of its effect to Petersen’s performance as the tortured Will Graham -- the detective who caught Lecter in the first place and must now reluctantly come out of retirement to track another murderer and face up to his own demons. With minimal "acting", Petersen takes us into the mind of one of Harris’s most interesting characters - a man simultaneously fascinated and frightened by the extent to which he can understand the mind of a serial killer. His haunted, distracted gaze adds layers to the film. For comparison, see Edward Norton’s indifferent, unremarkable performance as Graham in the inferior, recently released Red Dragon, which was made only to cash in on the Anthony Hopkins-as-Lecter craze.

Petersen was at his peak in the late 1980s/early 1990s and mainstream American cinema could have done with him during that vapid period. Among its other problems, there was a lamentable shortage of leading men worth the name. Tom Cruise was trying unsuccessfully to prove he could act; Tom Hanks was still stuck in his toy boy mould; the action stars (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal) had the biggest hits and the leading box-office draw for a time was, gulp, Kevin Costner (who I’ll refrain from commenting on, since I’m only marginally fonder of him than I am of Julia Roberts). Petersen’s brooding talent would have given American film an edge, and an identity, it badly needed.

Well, it was their loss - and, thanks to Hollywood’s influence over planet earth, ours.

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