Manhunter is a visually assured psychological thriller. Michael Mann builds tension through color, framing, editing, and sound with such skill that his actors can underplay their emotions. This mix is unusual, but it works superbly. Although the characters in this film engage in extraordinary activities, the low-key performances make them seem like real human beings. Manhunter succeeds at making the viewer feel the consequences of chasing serial killers for a living. William Petersen wears a haunted look that elicits sympathy, as well as a touch of fear, in the audience. Like Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Petersen does a spectacular job of physicalizing the toll his mental condition is taking on him. We sense his tenuous grasp on mental stability thanks in part to Brian Cox's terrifying portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. The Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal wishes for nothing more than comfort. His animosity is directed at those who inflict unpleasantness on him (or Clarice), characters always portrayed as unlikable people anyway. The Lecter of Manhunter has an enemy. Will has caught him, and Lecter hates him for it. Now the pure intelligent evil of Lecter is directed at someone the audience cares about, and we constantly fear for Will's safety because of it. Manhunter is an underrated film that deserves to stand alongside Seven and its younger sibling, Silence of the Lambs, as benchmarks of the serial killer genre.
by Perry Seibert review