“What are you dreaming?”
Audiences spend the entirety of MANHUNTER (1986) in the wake of a dream world conjured from the imagination of a man who housed a genuine taste for killing, with only the briefest of glimpses at what danced before the closed eyes of his purposeful pursuer sprinkled throughout. Make no mistake, however, the dream world of Will Graham was every bit as integral to Thomas Harris’ story as the Tooth Fairy’s.
Francis Dollarhyde (played to steely perfection by Tom Noonan) envisioned the Leeds and Jacobis, Reba McLane (Joan Allen), and a third family who would never know they were spared; but for the fascinatingly intense Graham (William Petersen), it was a beautiful blonde sipping a Dos Equis on a boat deck in Florida.
Both needed their dreams to survive—to exist—but despite our long enchantment with the Harris universe and the exploits of MANHUNTER’s characters, the time has come to celebrate the incredible performance of Kim Greist, who was far more than just a beautiful blonde whose sole purpose was as muse for her husband.
Director Michael Mann has a history of devoting far more time, attention, and development to the men of his pictures, and MANHUNTER was no exception, but on its surface, it would appear that Molly Graham was nothing more than someone for Will to live for. While that’s true to an extent, one must delve deeper into the quiet strength Greist injected into the character despite limited screen time.
Though our first cinematic exposure to Will Graham didn’t find him manipulated by Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), the man was driven by empathy, his conscience unable to erase the images of the Leeds and Jacobis, factors that allowed Graham to—as Dr. Sidney Bloom (Paul Perri) would say—“do a good job of getting [himself] all bent out of shape.”
To say she was Graham’s moral compass would be an over-exaggeration because Graham held clear perspective on right and wrong, but he respected his wife’s enough to discuss helping Crawford on the case. Molly called Graham’s bluff—a recurring theme—pointing out that he had already made up his mind and wasn’t asking. When he posed it as a question, though, Molly responded that he should stay with his wife and son, but quickly noted that such a sentiment was selfish, and she knew it. However, Molly did offer that “we have it more than good,” planting the suggestion that there was not only more to life than hunting killers, but that once more immersing himself in that world could pull him away from all that mattered, his family.
Though Graham held tight to that family, his empathy had a tendency to plunge him into a sensibility where Molly and Kevin (David Seaman) fell into the landscape of his consciousness, so driven that he would lose sight of what it would mean should he never return home.
The beauty of Greist’s performance, the glowing intensity of her quiet strength, was that she never passed on an opportunity to jolt Graham out of his dream-state and back to reality.
Though Graham flirtatiously joked that hotel rooms “elicit romance” and “we have to stop meeting like this,” in MANHUNTER such locations also dripped of symbolism. An unfamiliar place one inhabits for a short while, just as Will found himself entrenched in the world of Francis Dollaryde, and to an extent, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) throughout the bulk of the film.
The first time we see Graham in a temporary home, he’d grown weary of watching home videos of the families slaughtered by Dollarhyde and moved to the phone to make a late-night call to Molly. Despite the fact that his wife was groggy (for the record, no one plays half-awake like Greist) and doesn’t even engage in a real conversation with his partner, just hearing her voice, reacquainting himself with the warmth of his love as she dreamed was all it took for Graham to have an epiphany about what fueled Dollarhyde’s fantasies, foreshadowing to “smell yourself.”
“What are you dreaming?”
Later, this time Molly sharing a room with her husband, she stared into his eyes with an intimacy and understanding that only those who know someone completely are capable, and declared “Time is luck, Will.” Molly sensed that her partner was losing the battle with his imagination—the empathy of his dreamscape—and needed a reminder that risking his life to find one man would come at an expense that they couldn’t afford to pay. The ferocity of Will’s gaze communicated that the message had hit home. Graham was once again centered, if only momentarily. Molly was that magnet to Graham’s core which drew him out of depths from which he would otherwise be helplessly confined, without whom he would be doomed to nothing more than the task at hand.
Attributes that culminated in the couple sitting on a dock to discuss what came next, where Graham revealed that he would go to Atlanta, alone. Molly again called him out, this time for doing exactly what he said he wouldn’t. Though Graham was forceful in sharing that the killing had to stop, Molly didn’t storm off or become demonstrably upset because she knew that Will’s heart was in the right place, so she simply poised herself in thought, eyes searching for words that would resonate. Disbelief, disappointment, and fear radiated from Greist’s expression before she opened her mouth, but in the end, she countered with a jab which she knew would register, “William, you’re going to make yourself sick or get yourself killed.”
Molly had a foot in each plane—the dream world and physical—and it was Greist’s character who fueled all things Will Graham. She provided him with nourishment of the body and soul, but also incentive and inspiration, and the one thing which no one else was capable: telling Graham what he needed to hear and immediately putting whatever chaotic situation he found himself into real terms, a much-needed reminder that decisions and their subsequent actions had consequences.
Molly was the antidote to the “ugliest thoughts in the world,” and the reason Will returned home—not as a shell of himself—but the same man as the morning he departed.
Kim Greist’s abbreviated yet amazing performance as Molly Graham was a dream realized.