Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter (1986)

Michael Mann’s gripping, boldly stylized take on Hannibal Lecter is a crime thriller like no other

The Very Best



United States of America
Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller
Alexandra Neil, Annie McEnroe, Benjamin Hendrickson
120 min


Playing Hannibal Lecktor here evidently prepared Brian Cox well for the role of Logan Roy.

What it's about

A retired cop reeling from his last investigation is called back for one last cat-and-mouse chase: tracking down an unfathomable serial killer only he can understand.

The take

Before The Silence of the Lambs and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal, there was Manhunter and Brian Cox’s deeply unnerving Dr. Lecktor. Michael Mann’s neon-lit serial-killer thriller follows Will Graham (William Petersen), a retired FBI agent lured back to work by a psychotic mass murderer whom no one at the Bureau can catch. But Will has something no one else on the force does: he was so committed to tracking down the now-imprisoned Lecktor that he developed an ability to warp his mind into that of a deranged killer, seeing a kind of logic in their madness that allows him to hunt them down. 

While that’s a professional superpower of sorts, it’s also a point of insecurity and a source of deep torture for Will, who struggles with the burden of his extraordinary empathy. Manhunter is thus a different kind of psychological thriller: while its dive into the depraved minds of Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy is certainly disturbing, it’s the obsessive, sanity-smashing effect the investigation has on Will that is most terrifying. Add to that Dante Spinotti’s impossibly vivid cinematography, Tom Noonan’s shudder-inducing performance as the voyeuristic Tooth Fairy, and the film’s surprisingly layered treatment of the murderer, and this is the serial-killer movie to end all others.

What stands out

There are a million things worth spotlighting in Manhunter, but Will’s first meeting with Dr. Lecktor is top of mind. From the moment Will enters the room, we can sense his apprehension skyrocketing, as if he’s just walked into a tiger’s lair. Spinotti’s blindingly white tones and Brian Cox’s sinister performance only increase that impression: in that clinically lit cell, Will flounders under Lecktor’s unnerving gaze and cutting wit. There’s nothing for him to hide behind in there, and his old wounds begin to show again. It’s a credit to Cox’s performance that Will’s nauseous, panicked reaction to their conversation — racing down the prison’s spiral staircases, he frantically flees the building to get as far removed from Lecktor’s intellectual clutches as possible — gives as much relief to us as it does him.

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