THE STORY – Jodie Foster stars as Clarice Starling, a top student at the FBI’s training academy. Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) wants Clarice to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant psychiatrist who is also a violent psychopath, serving life behind bars for various acts of murder and cannibalism. Crawford believes that Lecter may have insight into a case and that Starling, as an attractive young woman, may be just the bait to draw him out.
THE CAST – Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine & Anthony Heald
THE TEAM – Jonathan Demme (Director) & Ted Tally (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 118 Minutes
By Danilo Castro
The biggest difference between “The Silence Of The Lambs” and its countless imitators (including two inferior sequels) is that the former uses violence to examine its characters, while the others use their characters to examine violence. Both formats have their share of lurid thrills, but it’s fair to say the reason “The Silence Of The Lambs” still holds up is because of the way these thrills create a unique bond between two of cinema’s most fascinating characters, FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
Starling and Lecter are kindred spirits, drawn to one another from the moment she visits his cell. Both are anomalies in their given worlds: Starling, a young woman in a male-dominated profession, and Lecter, an ingenious serial killer trapped among lowlifes. She requires psychiatric information to capture another killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), and he desires personal information as a means of satisfying his perverse intellect. As their visits become more frequent, however, intentions become increasingly blurred. One cannot be sure whether Starling starts to find catharsis in telling Lecter about her troubled childhood, just as one cannot be sure whether Lecter actually means to help her find Buffalo Bill.
Jonathan Demme may have seemed an odd choice to direct “The Silence Of The Lambs” based on dark comedies like “Something Wild” and “Married To The Mob,” but his offbeat style adds flavor to the thriller genre. The POV shots that were used so wonderfully in those earlier films return with a far more sinister edge. By framing Lecter through Starling’s eyes, we’re forced to experience her trepidation firsthand. When he insults Starling’s appearance, we too feel attacked. When he hisses at her, we too recoil in fear. It gets to where the only way we can break free of his stare is to look away from the screen. Demme quite literally traps the audience, as the simple act of viewing the film means that we succumb to Lecter’s twisted mind games.
Demme never allows us to become passive or reticent viewers either. He makes sure that we remain active participants in the case, flushed with adrenaline and empathy for our main character. Beyond his POV signatures, the director bakes in subtle nods to the seminal Alfred Hitchcock film “Psycho.” The 1960 slasher is explicitly referenced through Lecter’s deranged close-ups and Buffalo Bill’s cross-dressing, but it’s also referenced more subtly during the scene where Lecter murders his captors and escapes. Between Lecter’s slashing rubber hose strikes, the alternating high-and-low angles, and the emphasis on blood (uncharacteristic for the rest of the film), Demme crafts a homage to the iconic shower scene that is both clever and iconic in its own right.
The final act, where Starling accidentally stumbles upon Buffalo Bill’s basement, is another chilling standout. Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto drop us into the darkness, where Bill, adorned with night vision goggles, taunts the disoriented rookie and strokes her hair. It’s the only time we assume the killer’s POV, and not coincidentally, the closest the film comes to outright horror. The terrific suspense is compounded by the lack of music and the incessant, panicked breaths taken by Starling as she determines where to point her gun. Few climaxes are as satisfying as when she pulls that trigger.
There are, admittedly, aspects of the film that have aged less gracefully. The depiction of Buffalo Bill as a transgender woman has been seen as questionable by many, despite the attempts made by screenwriter Ted Tally to distinguish gender identity from psychotic behavior–“Billy hates his own identity you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and terrifying.” The scene where Hannibal Lecter escapes also stretches the audience’s intelligence a bit. For as twisted and brilliant as it is, there are certain plot conveniences which need to happen in order for the scene to work. Just try not to think about it too hard afterward, how one man could have pulled off what Lecter did unless you want to believe that he is more than human and everyone else is inferior to his intellect and evil nature.
While Foster’s quiet strength rightfully won her a second Academy Award for Best Actress, she is often overshadowed by the might of her co-star, Anthony Hopkins. From the moment he enters the frame, his controlled body language and dead eyes are enough to make anyone’s blood run cold. Lecter is an unruly monster, a mind as intelligent as it is disturbed, and the fact that Hopkins is still able to make him charming (even funny at times) is a testament to his abilities. Demme’s contributions to the performance are similarly crucial, as the tight, suffocating framing in which he captures Lecter serve to heighten his malevolent status. Demme also understood the importance of withholding Lecter, and that by extending his screen time, his malevolence would wear thin. Unfortunately, his successors didn’t get the memo.
“The Silence Of The Lambs” has been parodied countless times since 1991, but no matter how many times we reference fava beans or the lotion on the skin, the impact of the film remains untarnished. It is a freak occurrence of the right director, the right script, and the right cast making something that transcends genre and reshapes popular culture. Yes, there are admittedly some minor flaws. However, films like these rarely come along, and when they do, they remind us why we love the art form in the first place.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The acting is top-notch, the story is tense and Jonathan Demme provides some of the most stylish and exciting direction of his career.
THE BAD – The depiction of Buffalo Bill as a transgender woman has not aged all that gracefully in the 20+ years since the film’s release.
THE FINAL SCORE – 10/10