Silence of the Lambs, The (1991)
Release Date: February 14th, 1991 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jonathan Demme Actors: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Kasi Lemmons, Frankie Faison, Brooke Smith, Ted Levine
he Silence of the Lambs” is so near perfection it practically defies criticism. Justly sweeping the 1991 Academy Awards, taking all five top Oscar honors (picture, director, screenplay, actor, and actress) this landmark project reinvented the raw power and extreme horror in which serial killers could be portrayed, becoming a blueprint for nearly all future true-crime-styled murder/mystery and suspense films. Tour de force performances, wickedly superb dialogue, and masterful direction led Hannibal Lecter to be voted as the #1 greatest movie villain of all time by the American Film Institute and earned the film itself a spot on their 1998 and 2007 Top 100 lists – as well as numerous other well-deserved accolades and more homages and parodies than can be counted.
It starts in the dense, fog-laden woods near Quantico, Virginia, eerily narrated by Howard Shore’s sensationally moody score. FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is whisked away to the Behavioral Science Services division to be assigned the task of obtaining a profile from psychiatrist Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Imprisoned in a Baltimore State asylum, Lecter has been trapped away like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster for eight years; his filthy, subterraneous brick and metal holdings are as intimidating as his own mercurial demeanor. But his mind is razor sharp – and much too sophisticated for standard tests.
Starling’s ultimate goal is to catch a highly publicized, heinous serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who skins his victims – five to date. When another girl’s body is found in Tennessee (Bill’s targets are kept alive for three days before being shot, skinned, and dumped in a river), Starling observes firsthand the somatic mutilation and the uncovering of a new clue (the presence of a death’s-head hawkmoth cocoon lodged in the trachea) that could lead to a suspect. Prompted by the FBI to pursue unlocking clues about Bill’s identity via interrogations of Lecter, Clarice offers up a skewed form of payment to the demented doctor – details about her own troubled childhood, which the incarcerated cannibal devours with perverted glee. When the daughter of a senator is believed to be a current mark, the politician offers the deceptive Hannibal a transfer from his incommodious facilities in exchange for the name and whereabouts of the murderer – but with shady deals come ulterior motives.
Hannibal is an antagonist so engrossing, he’s able to toy with audience emotions as much as he manipulates the onscreen characters whose paths he crosses. Aided by frequent close-ups on his penetrating eyes and unnerving delivery of carefully scripted lines (many of which are oft quoted), Hopkins’ stellar performance is exquisitely complemented by Foster’s Starling, who is independent, intelligent, tough, and unyielding, while also demonstrative of believable nerves and fear. She occasionally becomes the target of sexism, which makes her formidable attributes just that much more redemptive. The back-and-forth conversations between these two leads never falter, remaining wholly absorbing from their initial meeting (divided by a glass barrier) to the stirring climax (now separated by entirely different locations).
Equal parts horror and thriller, “The Silence of the Lambs” redefined and rejuvenated the serial killer film while simultaneously putting the audience in a curious juxtaposition concerning whom to revere most (not unlike the slasher franchise monsters that almost immediately become more amusing than their apprehenders). It’s interesting to note that despite Lecter’s obvious perspicacity and mastery of disguises, during a moment of shifting dominion, he resorts to excessive physical violence to overcome his captors. His actions are so calculatingly devious that his return in a theatrical sequel and a prequel would be inevitable (unfortunately, neither the scripts nor the direction of these two subsequent films could achieve the sheer brilliance of the original). On the other side, Starling is the stalwart hero, admirably vulnerable in her suppressed memories of helplessness in the face of injustice; she’s as multilayered and just as awe-inspiring.
With grittiness, grisliness, and plenty of clever thrills (both visual and psychological), the look and feel of this outright masterpiece are manufactured with supremely deft hands. Sound effects, editing, camera angles, and lighting contribute to the breathtaking, pulse-pounding momentum, while notes of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Psycho” can be seen through the depicted violence; hints of “Blue Velvet” also appear through the themes of voyeurism and serenely veiled exteriors that conceal internal monstrosities. It may not be the only one of its kind – a genuinely scary picture given a boost by artists at their zenith – but “The Silence of the Lambs” is simply the best.
– Mike Massie