The Silence of the Lambs (1991): United States – directed by Jonathan Demme
Rated R by the MPAA – contains violence, grisly images, disturbing content, and some language
Forget about all the hype, the buzz, the criticism leveled at The Silence of the Lambs over the years. Forget the controversy and picketing surrounding its premiere and the awards it won. Forget the fact that it swept all five major categories at the Oscars, and forget that some people might not think it was deserving. Just watch the movie.
Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, a young FBI agent-in-training. One day she’s called into the office of Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), head of the behavioral division. He asks if she’s willing to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a notorious serial killer and eater of victims. Starling isn’t aware, however, that Crawford’s real plan involves using her and Lecter to catch Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Bill has been murdering and skinning women, and the FBI has run out of leads.
There’s something about Starling that Lecter appreciates and he opens up to her, giving her clues and hints, but at a price. She has to open up to him and reveal more of her past. The problem is that anything Lecter knows about you he will use against you: he causes a fellow cellmate to commit suicide by whispering to him all night long.
The first two-thirds of the film focuses on the relationship between Starling and Lecter, which is about as complex as anything put on screen. They battle with their wits, and there is a sexual tension between them that has nothing to do with sex. The final third switches the focus to Starling’s hunt for Buffalo Bill and the young woman he has imprisoned. Throughout the film, though, the star and center of attention is Starling. She is one of the strongest female protagonists I’ve ever seen. She’s struggling to fit in and succeed in a male-dominated world, a fact that is evident in at least two specific parts courtesy of some strong directing and staging. Along the way she is forced to deal with constant unwanted sexual attention from all sides, but she is never made into a sex symbol.
So why would I recommend forgetting all the hype and preconceived notions you might have about The Silence of the Lambs? It was a revelation to watch again with a blank slate. I was enthralled for the entire two hours, either drawn into Starling’s world or thrilled by Lecter’s unique voice and cadence. Buffalo Bill is a significantly disgusting character who engages in activities not normally discussed in proper company, and it is fascinating to peer into his perverted world. My brief and poor description of the film does not begin to do it justice.
Even if I may not succeed at describing the film, I can comment on its near-flawless production. The script is tight and thoughtfully written. Add in solid directing that includes some unique elements, such as rules on how almost the entire film is shown through Starling’s point-of-view, and you’ve got a classic in the making. The acting is beyond superb, with Foster turning in a beautifully subtle and utterly convincing performance. Hopkins creates possibly the most iconic and brutal villain in cinema’s history. Part of this is how the character is written, but a great deal is Sir Anthony’s ability to portray that onscreen and add his own personal touches. Outside of the two leads, the supporting cast is also very strong. Levine is remarkably disturbing, but in a different way than Hopkins.
Something strange happened when I had finished watching the film this time: I wanted to watch it again about ten minutes later. This has only happened to me twice before, with Fight Club and Harvey. All of the film’s Oscars are rightly deserved, and it is a true classic. If you haven’t seen it recently, or happen to dislike the film because your friends love it, give it another chance. If you have never seen it and think you can handle some disturbing content and violence, sit down for two hours and become immersed in a realistic and twisted world with some unforgettable characters.