Betwixt his only-now-a-classic neo-pulp comic book New York odyssey, The Warriors, and the even-then-classic trip out West to bad-tempered San Francisco with the anarchic buddy cop picture 48 Hrs., director Walter Hill’s bracing modernist thriller filmmaking took an intentional excursion down South into the fetid swamps of Louisiana. The resulting film, the mostly unknown Southern Comfort, lets itself be engulfed by the jaundiced spirit of the malarial bayou, resulting in a protoplasmic blast of downtuned terror in which awareness of one’s own impotency in a foreign land clings to you like molasses.
Released in 1981, only the most unawares viewer could possibly miss the Vietnam parable at heart in Comfort, an inverse of The Warriors, Hill’s masterpiece and a film more-or-less about the tentative, tenuous connections within groups just waiting for a chance to dissolve into entropy. In The Warriors, death isn’t catalyzed by some inadvertent journey to hostile, unknown territory but from thrashing about in lands one mistakenly assumed to be one’s own. In Comfort, in contrast, it is pitilessly apparent that America’s mental safeguard isn’t the assumption that America is always at home, but that America is innately better than the outside world.
Of course, the masculine imperiousness of the National Guard soldiers on a training mission in Southern Comfort is but fodder for Hill’s malformation of the backwoods into a malignant enemy galvanized into action only by the feeling that the invaders, the US soldiers, are a threat to their safety. Although the bayou residents are withheld from direct view – tellingly visualized as “others” that the soldiers never bother to humanize or consider as subjects – the film is crushingly loomed over by a sense of misguided assumptions, an awareness that if the soldiers had only considered their new location as more than a backdrop for their own utilization, then their unshaken minds and desolate, corruptible bodies may have been saved after all.
Wonderfully taking the situation-before-story simplicity of most genre-art cinema, Southern Comfort is essentially a Southern Western, Hill souring our assumptions of machismo and victory with the venomous, almost-sentient swamp and grotesquely hope-dredged stillwater below us. Rather than a symbol of life, this muck is a beacon of destruction, not only of corporeal flesh but the mental complacency of the soldiers who unthinkingly assert their superiority over a location and are ultimately felled by it. Even the eventual arrival of the military to save the lone survivors represents a circumstantial, hollow simulacrum of safety tarnished by its ephemerality. The film ends abruptly before true comfort registers or can settle in, almost as though giving us a flash or a vision of safety rather than the real thing.
Hill’s direction is mercilessly cold-blooded throughout, embodying the tentative nature of our mortal coil in the omnipresent water that forms a liquid, unstable ground below us – unshackling us from safety – and the putrescent hanging-down moss that violates the safe square box of the frame, always asserting its presence to the soldiers without ever fussily feeling constructed or composed. The swamp is a cruel and unusual mixture of harsh contrast, vomit-spewing greens and almost monochromatic emotionless browns sapped of any color or life whatsoever, surrounding us in a toxic fugue of unhallowed death. More than a mere Vietnam parable, Southern Comfort is a representation of self-confidence clarified as misguided, unblinking insularity in a single burst of unspeakable melancholy.
Simultaneously fending off and embracing the end of the American New Wave by giving the movement one of its final masterpieces, Thief, director Michael Mann immediately asserted his aesthetic sensualist style at the onset of a decade more or less desperate for this sort of stylistically brazen cinema. Not unlike other directors trapped in the liminal space between the American New Wave and the post-New Wave, Ridley Scott most overtly, Mann’s cinema tethers the malevolent nihilism and poetic cinematics of the American New Wave to the more genre-focused entertainment of the ‘80s. Manhunter was, more or less, his first slide into the big leagues, and if it isn’t the fullest flowering of this style, it’ll do nicely in a pinch.
Certainly, the influx of big-boy funding curtails Mann’s more impressionistic sensibilities, reining in his European, Jean-Pierre-Melville-in-America heart and transforming Manhunter into a thoroughly engrossing but mostly buttoned-up Hollywood thriller that works mostly because of Mann’s nearly monomaniacal command of screen language, experimentation or not. This adaptation of Thomas Harris’ gangbusters-selling novel Red Dragon, which would spawn a sequel that would form the basis of the much loved Best B-Picture The Silence of the Lambs five years after Manhunter, benefits from Mann’s considerably different take on the material compared to Jonathan Demme’s much more famous film.
To its detriment, this difference involves the now-leaden “detective with the mind of a killer” trope. But to Mann’s credit, his inimitable craft more or less kindles the theoretical capriciousness of this idea into a poetically merciless study in masculine culture that visualizes detective Will Graham’s (William Petersen) infatuation with the killer mindset as not orgiastic or post-coital but almost transcendent, as though he is drifting off to another, frighteningly anonymous plane of mental existence. With the help of his bête noire and prisoner, murderer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox), Manhunter details Graham’s hunt for serial killer Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan) in a relatively straight-and-narrow path for Mann, but he carves out slivers of cinematic difference and potency through his personalized stylistics to seal the deal.
Twitchy missing frames are the most outré gesture. But the most enticing – other than the casting contrast between the freakishly tall Noonan juxtaposed against the pudgy Cox with Petersen almost strangled in the middle – is the disarming mournfulness of the production. A genre pic through and through, Mann is able to scrap away the fiery, near-baroque charisma of something like Silence, instead bathing the material in an aura of cold-blooded emptiness in his framing choices and in his tone, teasing out Graham’s lonely lifestyle and procuring another of the director’s patented nighttime city tone poem patchworks while he is at it. There’s an exhausted, jaded, even sluggish air to the film that, in a decade of genre films that were by part of the loud-and-proud project, feels not only unique but bracingly troubling in its portrayal of thoroughly depleted men.
And, although this may be heresy, Cox’s interpretation of a thoroughly depressed Lecter is vastly more interesting – at a conceptual level, at least, although his performance may not necessarily be better – than Hopkins’ vision of Lecter as a mad carnival barker crossed with an operatic self-obsessive. Hopkins animates a wonderfully gilded cartoon, but Cox’s interpretation is a tragic, perforated man, a figure who reacts to their self-superiority not with a maniacal glee but a punctured malaise. Each is the perfect unlocking mechanism for their respective films, with Hopkins’ thoroughly caricatured zeal a perfect piston for Silence’s baroque blockbuster excess. Cox, befitting Mann’s vision, can’t be a piston for anything in a world stripped of such animated impulses. Essaying a man who does not command the world a la Hopkins but who feels thoroughly bored by its listless ennui, Cox’s Lecter may actually be a perfect cipher for his mid-’80s milieu, a broken figure of alienated individuality, a Mann who may never be able to adequately connect with another human being.