On Sunday, February 2, Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away.
Hoffman is one of the greatest, if not the single greatest actor of the past 20 years, and a significant chunk of his best work arrived in theaters during the aughts. Since Hoffman has already been masterfully eulogized in publications such as Slate, Grantland and The New Yorker, I see no reason to augment the now sufficient canon of career retrospectives. Rather I’d like to briefly examine one film in which Hoffman played a supporting a role. A film that I’ve long thought never received its critical due: Red Dragon.
Released in September 2002, Red Dragon is the prequel to the Academy Award winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs. It was the second film in which Anthony Hopkins reprised one of the iconic roles in film history: the brilliant psychiatrist turned cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter. One year prior, Hopkins had brought Lecter back to the silver screen in the distorted and rightly-maligned Hannibal, the sequel to Lambs. And by 2002, it was unclear if audiences or critics could stomach more Lecter—given Hannibal’s inability to even approach the brilliance of Lambs it seemed, at the time, more prudent to relegate the character to the past rather than bring him back for one last go around.
But Red Dragon, at least in the opinion of this writer, proved that in 2002 Lecter still had staying power. From the opening scene, in which FBI agent Will Graham (a male version of Clarice Starling played by the often underappreciated Ed Norton) exposes Lecter as a serial killer, and in the process almost loses his life, the film ingratiates the viewer with the seductive mix of suspense and general weirdness any good serial killer story requires. The bulk of the film, like in Lambs, sees Lecter behind bars—the great oxymoron of the Hopkins “trilogy” is that Lecter nonsensically seems more sinister and dangerous when he’s cooped up in a cell rather than when he’s on the loose (as he is for the duration of Hannibal.) Graham, like Clarice Starling after (before?) him, makes frequent visits to Lecter’s jail cell. The reason: He seeks Lecter’s help in pursuing a new serial killer dubbed the “Tooth Fairy,” who has gruesomely murdered two families in a manner that suggests similar atrocities will follow. Ralph Fiennes gives a wonderfully terrifying performance as the “Tooth Fairy” (this must have been the film which convinced Warner Brothers Fiennes could play the part of Lord Voldemort—unfortunately the later Harry Potter films negated Fiennes’ natural ferocity with an overly thick coating of make-up and CGI but that’s a topic for another post.)
So where does Hoffman fit into all of this? He has a small part as an ethics-free tabloid reporter who stalks Graham in hopes of obtaining fodder for sensationalized stories. At first Graham and his FBI boss (played by the always capable Harvey Keitel) treat Hoffman’s character like a nuisance. They then decide to feed him a fake story, hoping that the publication of incendiary lies will help suss out the Tooth Fairy’s whereabouts. The strategy (sort of) backfires: The Tooth Fairy is offended by the story and retaliates by capturing Hoffman and subjecting him to a fairly memorable on-screen demise.
While the role is small and of secondary significance to the plot, Hoffman, like he so often did, imbued it with life, zest and the kind of onscreen presence that demands to be watched. His appeal as an actor did not spring from good looks or a classic movie star persona but from the ability to completely lose himself within whatever character he was playing. In Red Dragon, he exudes an oily smugness that’s similar the privileged smarminess he displays in Patch Adams and Scent of a Woman. His character is meant to be disliked, and Hoffman does such a good job of ensuring this is the case that when he finally meets his end the viewer is appalled but also slightly happy, because on some level, such a fictional sleezeball deserves no less.
In singing the praises of Hoffman, many writers and critics have rightly pointed out that his presence alone often elevated subpar films to planes of excellence they had no right occupying. I heartily agree, though it makes me wonder why Red Dragon, a great film on its own right albeit one which Hoffman helped make even better, still fails to receive the critical due it deserves. Critics didn’t pan it upon its release, but they certainly didn’t embrace it. And it’s long since been forgotten rather than canonized with Hollywood’s other great serial killer flicks. This lack of adoration may stem from the fact that it follows in the footsteps of a classic and is therefore derivative by its very nature, or maybe it has something to with its director Brett Ratner, someone critics love to dislike. Whatever the reason, cinephiles should take the time to appreciate Red Dragon. It’s a wonderful suspense film filled with first rate acting. After a recent viewing, my only criticism is that it’s too short. It covers significant narrative ground in two hours, and at times feels a bit rushed. Ratner & Co. could have added another 30 minutes without making it feel long or bloated. I would have enjoyed watching Norton, Fiennes, Hoffman and Keitel for hours on end.