Feast of Fear

More Guts Than Blood in Red Dragon

I once had a roommate who disapproved of me watching the X-Files. You know, because of all the murdering, and that creepy music. She would glide past the TV Sunday nights gently tsk-tsking, and recite a Bible verse, or at least part of one, about God “not giving us a spirit of fear” (Romans 8:15 ). Meaning that choosing to be afraid was wrong, even when only pretend, and for fun.

I guess I shouldn’t have seen Red Dragon then, what with its cannibalism and blood spatter. Actually, and good for it, this Silence of the Lambs “prequel” spares us the gratuitous violence as it tells that tale we’ve heard before: the haunted FBI agent tracks a cutely nicknamed serial killer, with help from Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who is scheming away in his dank Plexiglas cage.

Will Graham (Edward Norton), the FBI agent this time around, is a bland but earnest guy famous for having been nearly killed by Lecter in the process of catching him. Graham emerges reluctantly from early retirement to help capture another elusive killer (Ralph Fiennes), this one dubbed the “Tooth Fairy.”

Red Dragon moves along quickly and frighteningly but unsurprisingly. Lecter plays his usual mind games. The Tooth Fairy is just one notch above cliché. We are supposed to believe that the combination of an abusive upbringing and facial “disfigurement” (a repaired cleft lip and palate) has caused him to be insanely evil. It’s only his “Red Dragon” fantasy that gives him a little depth. He’s trying to transform himself into this half-man, half-dragon thing he saw in a William Blake painting, a feat he accomplishes by murdering entire families.

He’s not totally hopeless, though. He stops himself, somehow, from doing away with his lady friend (Emily Watson), a sympathetic fellow misfit (she’s blind) who sleeps with him despite the fact that he has absolutely no personality and speaks only in monosyllables. It’s the only mercy he manages to summon, and is a lot more than he shows for the tabloid reporter (Philip Seymour Hoffman) following his story.

Yes, Red Dragon scared me. And thanks to that former roommate of mine, I feel a little guilty about it. The only reason I paid any attention to her warnings about the “spirit of fear” is because she was nice, and had been to Catholic Bible college, and knew stuff. But even I realize that being superficially scared by a 125-minute movie isn’t the same as living in “a spirit of fear.” Being afraid isn’t wrong, especially in the real world, with its terrorists and serial snipers and other monsters.

Fear doesn’t become destructive until we give in to it, and let it push us into hiding. Most good vs. evil stories, including Red Dragon, make that simple point. The killers are defeated in this movie because an FBI agent is brave and smart, and willing to get personal with a man who’s itching to destroy him.