It can be difficult to fairly assess movies dealing with issues as emotive and important as this does – the story of Boston-based investigative journalists who helped expose systemic child sex abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests, and covered up by the Catholic Church. But this is a movie review, not an awards-giving ceremony for the worthiness of its subject matter, and I have to judge how it succeeds as a movie.
There are two routes the based-on-real life genre can go down. Either it wins us over on the strength of its drama – engaging us as cinematic stories grounded in reality, in the vein of Apollo 13. Alternatively, all artifice is dropped to function on sheer naked portrayal, in the vein of 12 Years a Slave. This attempts to be the former. Simply put, I was never convinced of its dramatic credentials. Beyond a couple of minor subplots, the team steadily uncover the scale of the scandal with the minimum of fuss. Which is not to disparage the real work of these people – why should the uncovering of an abuse scandal be exciting, or cinematic? Some stories don’t need to be sexed up to make them cinematic, and some stories should never be. This film has not been sexed up, but it’s still a movie-investigation, with movie-montages and movie-music, played by all-too recognisable actors in modes they long ago made their own. That’s not a problem if the drama has the wherewithal to succeed on its own terms. Restrained outrage inherent to your subject matter isn’t enough.
A superb movie, but then you probably already knew that. My thoughts? Objectification of women, taken to its logical extreme by the serial killing culprit, was the strongest impression I had. Crucially, this impression wasn’t built solely from the smorgasbord of psychopaths on display — any film can present an objectionable viewpoint from the position of a Bad Man and not provoke much in the way of debate. It’s in the “good” and the bad. Chief among the director’s weapons is a lingering POV, most eye-catching when framing the electrifying one-on-one scenes between Jodie Foster’s Clarise and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal. So magnetic are these scenes one could easily miss how important the same technique is in the gaps in-between. Men hitting on an attractive young woman in a professional setting might be an all-too common, nauseating experience for the latter. But the effect of the camera, always intimate enough to suggest every nervous, unsettling desire, always held just slightly longer than one feels comfortable with, imparts that queer ill-ease on the viewer. Dialogue also deserves a mention for its role in this. Even the most cordial of interactions near the end is lent such a dimension by one of Hannibal’s earlier taunts, “Jack Crawford is helping your career isn’t he? Apparently he likes you and you like him too”. Suggesting, almost slyly, that less separates his primeval bestiality from the rest of us than you might think.
I was less onboard for the final act. Changing gears immediately and decisively from psychological drama into action thriller, the latter was a touch too thriller finale by numbers for my taste, lacking some of the guile that marked its contemplative mode – but not without its share of gratifying thrills. It’s a relatively minor gripe for a movie that’ll command your attention with steely authority in the manner of its two leads – there’s not a second they’re on screen that your eyes won’t be.