Watching Hannibal Rising (MGM), the why-he-did-it prequel to the Hannibal Lecter mass-murder entertainment franchise, I experienced a surprising reaction. Not nausea, boredom, or uncontrollable eye-rolling; those happened, too, but they were predictable enough. No, what this nasty, brutish (but unfortunately not short) movie left me feeling was ashamed to be American. First of all: As a folk archetype, a supervillain for our times, this is the best we can come up with? A vaguely Eurotrash schoolboy who eats people's cheeks? And secondly, where do we get off using the trauma of the Second World War as an excuse for Hannibal's (that is, our) insatiable appetite for murder? If pop-culture fantasies really do serve as a psychological X-ray of our collective fears and desires, this is one sorry-ass session on the couch.
Hannibal Rising argues that young Lecter would have grown into a perfectly wholesome and, indeed, unusually filial Lithuanian aristocrat, if it hadn't been for that nasty war. When the Nazis marched into his previously idyllic existence—just Mama, Papa, Hannibal, and his sister Mischa in a lovely medieval castle—8-year-old Hannibal fell victim to T.T.S., or Televisual Trauma Syndrome, a condition in which one's repressed memories become accessible only via choppy, poorly lit flashbacks. But this much is clear: After the children's parents are killed in a bombing raid, they're taken prisoner by a wannabe Nazi, Grutas (Rhys Ifans), and his starving cohort. Whatever unspeakable thing takes place after that, it involves soup cauldrons … and Mischa's sudden disappearance … and close-ups of Grutas and company with bloody chins. If his first name hadn't already decided his destiny, this sister-chomping incident settles it: The seeds for Hannibal's adult food preferences have been planted.
After stopping off at a Stalinist orphanage just long enough to grow into the body of a 22-year-old actor with the convincingly evil-sounding name of Gaspard Ulliel, Hannibal treks off to France, where Gong Li is waiting for him in a gloomy château filled with samurai armor. Why? It seems she's Lady Murasaki, his only surviving relative, a widowed aunt by marriage who greets him with quasi-erotic reverence. There follows a Karate Kid samurai-training montage, with Gong Li as Pat Morita to Hannibal's Ralph Macchio. Lady M. is a bit of an enabler, as we discover when Hannibal makes his first kill—a French butcher who vulgarly insulted his aunt in the marketplace. When presented with the victim's head on her ancestral altar, she demurs with the mildest of reprisals: "You didn't need to do this for me." It's as if her nephew were presenting her with an inordinately nice tennis bracelet.
Then the doorbell rings and Detective McNulty from The Wire walks in. No, it's Dominic West, the guy who plays McNulty, but given that he's cast as a cop—Inspecteur Popil—it's impossible to see him as anything but the hard-drinking Baltimore detective avec un French accent. McNulty knows Hannibal killed the butcher but can't seem to pin the crime on the diabolically slippery lad. He can only watch as Hannibal tracks down his sister's killers one by one and dispatches them horribly. Occasionally the two of them meet up for an unsuccessful interrogation:
McNulty: His face had been eaten.
Hannibal: I would suspect the ravens.
McNulty: Ravens who make shishkabobs?
These excerpts of dialogue are making Hannibal Rising sound like campy fun, but believe me, it's not. The movie is trudgingly tedious—if you're in it for the violence, be advised that each action scene is separated from the next by at least 20 minutes of macabre vamping. Above all, the movie is shameless. It doesn't hesitate to avail itself of whatever historical boogeyman it needs to advance the plot, whether it's Klaus Barbie's exportation of French children to Auschwitz or the loss of one's entire family in Hiroshima (the back story that's tossed out in a vain bid to deepen Gong Li's character). For screenwriter Thomas Harris, who invented the Lecter character in his 1981 novel Red Dragon, and director Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring), WWII serves as a convenient clearinghouse, a Wal-Mart of trauma. Getcher vast reserves of human suffering here! I ask you, who's cannibalizing whom?
Though there are things I admire about Demme's Silence of the Lambs (Anthony Hopkins' performance and the delicately scripted interplay between him and Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling), I've always detested its ending: that cute phone call Lecter makes to Starling from an undisclosed location in the tropics, where he's "having an old friend for dinner." The cheap pun, and the notion of Lecter as a charming rogue on the lam, seemed to undercut the horror of everything that came before, all in the name of setting up a sequel. Two movies later, Hannibal Rising ends on a similarly jokey note, raising the specter of an even greater horror: Slacker Hannibal: The Post-College Years.