Silence of the Lambs, The (United States, 1991)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When The Silence of the Lambs took the Academy Awards ceremony by storm in 1992, winning in five major categories (Best Picture, Best Director - Jonathan Demme, Best Actor - Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress - Jodie Foster, and Best Adapted Screenplay - Ted Tally), it beat the odds in more ways than one. Granted, 1991 was a slow year for movies, and many pundits have remarked that the Oscar field was among the weakest ever (the other contenders were Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, and the overrated The Prince of Tides), but the strong showing of The Silence of the Lambs was a surprise to almost everyone. In the first place, it was released in February 1991, a date thought to be beyond the short memories of the Academy members. Secondly, it is a dark psychological thriller - the kind of movie that occasionally receives a Best Picture nomination, but almost never takes home the statuette.

Although The Silence of the Lambs is brilliantly constructed and powerfully acted, and became one of the most recognizable thrillers of the '90s, it was neither the best movie of the year (a citation I would award to Beauty and the Beast) nor even the best thriller (overall, Dead Again impressed me more). The Silence of the Lambs contains a number of inarguably great scenes, but the screenplay, adapted from Thomas Harris' novel, suffers from a split personality. The scenes featuring Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) are the stuff of legends. However, the rest of the movie, which concentrates on the pursuit of serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), has a familiar, derivative feel. In truth, the climax couldn't be more mundane.

The Silence of the Lambs opens by introducing us to FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a brilliant student who has been selected by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, to help in the pursuit of a serial killer called Buffalo Bill, who skins his victims after murdering them. Crawford wants Clarice to approach the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, or "Hannibal the Cannibal" as he has become known, and encourage Lecter to provide a profile of Buffalo Bill. Crawford claims that Lecter might be willing to open up to a woman - and he's right. The good doctor offers Clarice a quid pro quo deal. For every piece of information he shares about Buffalo Bill, Clarice must reveal one detail about her past. So, while Lecter is helping Clarice get closer to Buffalo Bill, he is also worming his way into her psyche. Perhaps surprisingly, however, she is doing the same to him.

There is little doubt that the most memorable aspect of The Silence of the Lambs is Anthony Hopkins' incomparable performance as Lecter. Taking over for Brian Cox, who was effective, but not especially memorable, as the good doctor in 1986's Manhunter, Hopkins instantly makes the role his own, capturing and conveying the charismatic essence of pure evil. To his dying day, no matter how many roles he plays in the interim, Hopkins will forever be known for this part. (It is a credit to Hopkins' ability as an actor that this part did not result in stereotyping. His post-Silence career has been greatly varied, with roles as widely diverse as a stodgy butler in Merchant-Ivory's The Remains of the Day and an action hero in The Edge.) I can throw out any number of superlatives, but none of them do justice to this chilling performance, which I labeled as the best acting work of the '90s. Want to feel the icy fingers of terror stroke your heart? Watch this mixture of brilliant eloquence and inhuman cruelty. As portrayed by Hopkins, Hannibal is both a suave, cultured gentleman and an unspeakable fiend. He is gracious and monstrous at the same time. (Hopkins also provided one of the most quotable lines in recent film history with "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti", which was followed by an inimitable slithering slurp.)

Jodie Foster's interpretation of Clarice Starling is not as high-profile as Hopkins' work, but the film wouldn't have been the same without her. In a quiet, non-flashy manner, Foster takes ownership of Clarice, transforming her into the movie's human anchor; she is our point-of-entry into the contorted, grotesque world of murder, insanity, and decadence. Clarice is developed into a multidimensional human being who is driven to succeed in a man's world, haunted by memories of the loving father she lost at an early age, and fascinated by the twisted brilliance of Lecter. There isn't a false note in the performance. Foster's best scenes are the ones in which she is paired with Hopkins, such as the instance in which Clarice's facial expression crumbles almost imperceptibly while Lecter coldly and cruelly dissects her life. It's arguable whether Foster deserved a Best Actress Oscar for her work in The Silence of the Lambs, but there's no doubt that she is owed more recognition for the film's success than she often receives.

It's impossible to mention Clarice without noting that she is one of the rarest commodities in thrillers: a female hero. In interviews, Foster has indicated that, of all the roles she has played in a career that began in childhood, Clarice is her favorite (which makes it odd that she didn't try harder to re-arrange her schedule so she could reprise the part in The Silence of the Lambs' sequel, Hannibal). In addition to having to face Lecter's mind-games and the dangers associated with Buffalo Bill, she must deal with the sexual politics of being a woman in a man's world. The most telling scene occurs early in the movie, when Crawford takes her on a "field trip" to view the latest victim. There, in a hick town, she finds herself stripped of authority as a result of a casual comment by Crawford, and surrounded by a group of macho, male cops. After momentarily escaping by taking flight into a memory of her father's funeral, she regroups and takes charge of the situation, ordering the men to clear the room where the body is housed. Thus does Clarice become a woman championing victimized women - a real heroine, not a woman imitating a testosterone-driven stereotype.

In terms of psychological depth, Lecter matches Clarice with ease. He's far more intelligent and dangerous than any real-world serial killer; it's a wonder that the FBI caught him at all (a story related as background material for Manhunter), and no surprise that they take extreme precautions when interacting with him. Lecter is part-man, part-machine. Hopkins has invoked 2001's HAL when asked about his inspiration for crafting the character. Yet, as cold as Lecter can be, there's still a part of him that yearns to be recognized as a human being, and this aspect draws him to Clarice. He respects her intelligence, is intrigued by her ambition and femaleness, and is moved by her sad and bitter reminiscences of her past life. He senses a kinship. Their relationship becomes twisted and complex, with aspects of student and mentor, father and daughter, and husband and wife all rolled together. By the end of The Silence of the Lambs, it is obvious that both characters have had a profound impact upon each other.

Unfortunately, as impossible as it is to look away from the screen when Lecter is on it, the same compulsion does not exist for Buffalo Bill, who is an ordinary demented personality drawn from Serial Killers 101. A combination of Ted Bundy, Gary Heidnick, and Ed Gein, Buffalo Bill isn't much different from similar figures that populate less imposing motion pictures (such as the B-fare that never achieves a theatrical release). Ted Levine is adequate in the role, but there's not much to grab on to: a transvestite who is so fascinated with women that he is constructing an outfit out of their skin. What's disappointing about The Silence of the Lambs' presentation of Buffalo Bill (real name: Jame Gumb) is that it doesn't offer the same detailed look into his pathology as it does that of Hannibal Lecter (or, for that matter, than Manhunter did of its antagonist, played by Tom Noonan). In terms of villains, Gumb almost looks like a clown next to Lecter, and this dilutes the climax's impact.

Jonathan Demme's sure-handed direction is helped immeasurably by the work of his cinematographer (Tak Fujimoto), his production designer (Kristi Zea), and his editor (Craig McKay). The Silence of the Lambs consistently looks good, builds suspense, and does not outstay its welcome. Many two-hour thrillers have dead patches, but that's one characteristic of the genre this movie avoids. Instead of using the common tactic of priming an audience by employing "boo!" moments (fake scares, such as when an animal darts out from behind trash cans), Demme uses what he calls "deceptive cutting" to enhance the tension. There are also little cues that hint at bigger dangers, such as when Clarice receives a nail prick while sliding under the partially-closed door to the garage where she finds Gumb's first victim.

That scene, with Clarice moving slowly through a dark, uncertain world populated by mannequins, is one of the movie's creepiest. The longer, original cut (available on both the laserdisc and DVD special edition) is even more evocative, as rats play a dissonant song on a piano keyboard. Another memorable moment is Clarice's descent into the depths where she first meets Lecter. When she reaches the lowest level, the reddish glow of Dante's hell is all around her. Demme then employs a point-of-view shot as she walks down the long hall towards Lecter's cell, putting us (the audience) in her position. The director also uses effective editing and reflections to emphasize the relationship between Clarice and Lecter. On one occasion, the camera focuses on Clarice while Lecter's face appears to hover, disembodied, in the air beside her. On another, while Clarice tells the story of the lambs, Demme switches back and forth between close-ups of Clarice's tortured visage and Lecter's eager one. This is the scene that creates the strongest ties between them. Lecter sees that Clarice needs to save one innocent lamb (in this case, Buffalo Bill's latest captive) to redeem herself, and he gives her the information that will allow her to do so.

Demme has stated that, from the first, he wanted to be faithful to Thomas Harris' text, so he worked with screenwriter Ted Tally to keep more than just the essence of the novel in the final version of the film. The result is a thriller with no sex, no gratuitous nudity, and no overt romance (although it's impossible to deny that there's some sort of attraction between Clarice and Lecter, and Clarice and Crawford - her two "father figures"). There are no car crashes, traditional chases, or stunts, yet the level of suspense remains high. For this, the credit must go to everyone involved in the production, from the director and actors to the technical staff.

Since its 1991 release, much has been written about The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, Clarice Starling, and the relationship between them. Thomas Harris was so intrigued by the characters that he wrote the sequel, Hannibal, which soared into the top spot on best-seller lists countrywide as soon as it was released. The motion picture follow-up, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Hopkins and Julianne Moore (replacing Foster), is set to open on the 10th anniversary of the release of The Silence of the Lambs. If it's half as involving, it will be a success. The Silence of the Lambs may not have been the best thriller of the year, but it was the most chilling and creepy, and there's no denying that the most celebrated aspect of the film - the Clarice/Hannibal connection - could not have been accomplished with greater skill.

Silence of the Lambs, The (United States, 1991)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 1991-02-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Vilence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1