Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Necessity of Moral Certainty

About a year ago I heard about the Chris Benoit murder suicide. This was kind of hard on me, I followed wrestling but more by all standards up until this event Benoit was nothing short of a Roarkian hero in his field bringing an unmatched skill level and passion to his work. I belonged to a video through mail service at the time and two DVDs were sitting around. Beautiful creatures, a true story of supposed love and murder, and the Mike Hammer film "Kiss Me Deadly."

Needless to say the last thing I wanted to watch was two young girls murdering one of their mothers being portrayed sympathetically. I have to say I really enjoyed Kiss me Deadly. Mike Hammer sticking to his guns no matter what, saving the people close to him, mourning them when he can't and delivering a little lethal justice when necessary. And even taking on a lost cause just because it mattered to him.

I think people tend to forget how important the idea of that really is. Of being certain in one's moral convictions and doing whatever they dictate regardless of the cost. In a world where seemingly every Jason Vorhees and Leatherface has a sob story and every hero has major flaws we forget how much seeing this can mean to a person.

The Thomas Harris Hanibal Lecter series is a great example of this progression. From Silence of the Lambs through Hanibal Rising, Lecter becomes more and more sympathetic each time you see him. There was reasoning behind his kills, he was traumatized by the death of his sister etc.

I'd trade the whole lot for the first Hanibal Lecktor film. Michael Mann's Manhunter is an amazing piece of work. It's beautiful to look at with color, lighting and set/prop design taking an active part in every scene heightening the mood and leading you exactly where the filmmaker wanted you to go.

While I love the look, feel, and sound of this movie, what really draws me in is its moral certainty. Good is good and evil is evil. Everybody is still "human" and complex, but at the end of the story you know you were rooting for the right person to win.

William Peterson's haunted Will Graham is what I loved most about this film. He's haunted by the fact that he's great at catching the most vile men alive, but in doing so he has to learn to think like them and this is not something you want to be capable of or to do for long periods of time.

His unease with the evil with which he must deal is the moral core of the film. He doesn't play games, flirt with or fall in love with Lecter. Dealing with the manipulative bastard is a necessary evil which he only grudgingly does. And even though he'd love give it up to go back to spending time with his family

"I gave it up, until you showed me pictures of two dead families knowing god damn well that I'd imagine families three, four, five and six! Right? Great but don't talk to me about late, pal. I'll tell you when it's too fucking late, until then we go as late as I want to take it!"

And he goes non stop. He falls asleep on a plane looking at crime photos only to be awaken by the horrified screams of a young girl sitting next to him who catches a glimpse of the horror that he has made his business.

This isn't to say that the villains have been made into caricatures. Lecktor is still a human being who even has some of his characteristic wit, but he never charms you into forgetting he's a monster. And the same goes for Francis Dollarhyde, he's still a sad lonely man who part of you just wants to see become happy and find love and friendship, but he's also enough of a monster you know when to cut off your sympathy to him and extend it to his victims.

There's a common misconception that moral certainty means oversimplification. The filmmakers who remade this film obviously belong to this school. Nothing seems to really be stopping Graham from still working in the field of criminal investigation, he's more or less just taken an early retirement. Dollarhyde is almost excessively sympathetic as a mentally ill man who just needs a good dose of Zyprexa and a decent support network. And of course Lecter is his normal charming self, so much so that when he gives Dollarhyde Graham's home address you almost respond with something like "Oh you mischievous little man" as opposed to the complete and utter terror you should.

Say what you will about the original it wasn't afraid to make sure the killers seem like human monsters and heroes are disgusted with them. It never shies away from the fact that to take an innocent life makes you a terrible person and to save one makes you a good person. It's really sad when you reach a point where this is a controversial statement.