"Red Dragon" opens with the pleasure of seeing Hannibal Lecter as he was before leaving civilian life. The camera floats above a symphony orchestra and down into the audience, and we spot Lecter almost at once, regarding with displeasure an inferior musician. Interesting, how the director forces our attention just as a magician forces a card: We notice Lecter because he is located in a strong point of the screen, because his face is lighted to make him pop out from the drabness on either side, and because he is looking directly at the camera.
I felt, a confess, a certain pleasure to find him in the audience. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most wicked villains in movie history, and one of the most beloved. We forgive him his trespasses because (1) they are forced upon him by his nature; (2) most of the time he is helplessly imprisoned, and providing aid to the FBI, or seeming to, after his peculiar fashion, and (3) he is droll and literate, dryly humorous, elegantly mannered. In these days of movie characters who obediently recite the words the plot requires of them, it's a pleasure to meet a man who can hold up his end of the conversation.
The opening, with Hannibal still in civilian life, allows a tense early scene in which the doctor (Anthony Hopkins) receives a late-night visitor, FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton). Graham has been assisted by Lecter in examining a series of crimes which, he has just realized, involved cannibalism--and now, as he regards the doctor in the gloom of the shadowed study, it occurs to him, just as it simultaneously occurs to Lecter, that it is clear to both of them who this cannibal might be.
Flash forward several years. Lecter is in prison, Graham has taken early retirement, but now his old FBI boss (Harvey Keitel) wants to recruit him to solve a pair of serial killings, this time by a man dubbed the Tooth Fairy because he leaves an unmistakable dental imprint at the scenes of his crimes. Graham resists, but photos of the dead families and a poignant look at his own living family do the trick, and he joins the case as a free-lance adviser. This requires him to examine crime scenes by creeping through them in pitch darkness in the middle of the night, although there is no reason he could not visit at noon (except, of course, that he wants to share the killer's point of view, and also because the film seeds the darkness with potential danger).