If you’re like me, you’re a little nervous about projects that involve Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter. Don’t get me wrong, “The Silence of the Lambs” was an integral part of my development as a film nerd, but “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon?” Not so much. I didn’t even bother with “Hannibal Rising.” Between the sequel and two prequels, it seemed the boogeyman of my teenage years had been whittled down to a punch line.
Well, until now.
Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal,” which is based on the book by Thomas Harris and has its third season premiering tonight on NBC, brings the character back to his menacing roots. A far cry from the grubby realism of Jonatham Demme’s “Lambs,” the show adopts a surrealist approach. This is evident from the very first scene of the first episode, where Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) investigates a murder. Gifted — or cursed — with hyper empathy, Will’s able to see into the scene of a crime. He assesses what was done and how. We watch as a pool of blood retracts into the victim and breath re-enters her body, only to see her killed again, Will standing in as the murderer.
This approach is pretty unique, particularly for network television, and it feels wholly appropriate for a franchise in which one character convinced another to swallow his own tongue. Will’s visions fuel some of the show’s creepier images. His relationship with Hannibal is visualized as a black stag — a motif that’s poignantly used in the final moments of Season 2. Will sees Hannibal himself as a Wendigo, a half-man-half-stag. One of the show’s more chilling (and darkly comic) moments comes when Will envisions the Wendigo taking the stand in a courtroom.
Speaking of unsettling, Brian Reitzell’s Ligeti-inspired score is a real highlight.
But let’s get to the main event: Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Lecter. I’d only seen Mikkelsen as one of the baddies in “Casino Royale,” but he’s a revelation! His Hannibal is harder to read than Hopkins’s, playing his cards close to his chest while secretly making his puppets dance a sick charade. Like many great monsters, he’s got a hell of an introduction. At its worst — which is still better than most — “Hannibal” is a standard procedural complete with wise-cracking investigators, but the titular character’s reveal halfway through the first episode was the moment I went all in.
One of the series’s real strengths is the pairing of Hannibal and Will. Dr. Lecter has a deep fascination with this man who’s become his patient, and Will’s hyper empathy allows him to appreciate Hannibal’s eccentricities. There’s almost a romantic edge to their relationship, and I love how it takes on tragic dimensions by the end of the second season.
The main thing I could see driving viewers away is the gore. While there are passages that make “Silence of the Lambs” look like Disney, I’m not sure the squeamish would come to the show in the first place. And the carnage is displayed…dare I say it…beautifully. Most striking might be a human totem pole discovered on a beach in season one.
Also, the food cinematography, disturbing as that sounds, is sensational.
“Hannibal” struggles with ratings — maybe because of its violent content or surrealist approach — but I sincerely hope you’ll check it out. At the risk of fanboying, I’m so glad this show exists. Not only is its non-traditional approach a breath of fresh air, but its revitalization of a pummeled pop culture icon is really exciting.
So long as you have the stomach for it.