The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Whenever asked what my favorite movie of all time is, I inevitably answer The Silence of the Lambs.  I had a job back in 1991 that involved me driving around town and delivering cheap items that people got in return for their donations to Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and often took time out to goof off.  I was 19, after all, and teenagers are not the most reliable workers. 

I also went out and saw almost every movie I could at the time.  So, one January night, I made sure I finished the rounds I had to do on the far west side (at least, it was at the time) of Phoenix and slipped in to see this movie, knowing very little about it other than there was a cannibalistic serial killer involved.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is an FBI trainee who is trying hard to make her way in what is obviously a man's world, as she is constantly treated with barely concealed contempt from her colleagues.  Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), her potential boss in the profiling department she is aiming for, is currently working the case of a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) who has been kidnapping young women, taking parts of their skin and dumping them in random places.  Crawford sends Starling to visit notorious Baltimore psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), currently locked up in a high-security wing of an insane asylum due to his dietary irregularities.

Starling initially receives a warm welcome from Lecter's own doctor, Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), which quickly turns cold when she turns down his advances.  Her own interactions with Lecter are similarly cold, as he has been with anyone who had tried to interview him previously, but warm up after she is attacked by a man named Miggs (Stuart Rudin) who inhabits a cell down the hall from Lecter. 

Meanwhile, Bill claims another victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), who happens to be the daughter of a Tennessee senator.  With the pressure increased to find him, a bond develops between Starling and Lecter and she reveals secrets from her past in exchange for clues that can lead to Bill's true identity.  Meanwhile, Chilton does his best to sabotage proceedings out of fear of losing his star patient.  Clarice's unraveling the clues surrounding Buffalo Bill may put her in personal danger, while Lecter has his own plans for freedom.

I have read the original book by Thomas Harris, despite the fact that I didn't care too much for the previous novel, Red Dragon.  Of course, I read The Silence of the Lambs years after seeing the movie, and writer Ted Tally and director Jonathan Demme obviously worked hard to faithfully adapt the novel as much as possible.  It is possibly Harris's best book, with Black Sunday running a close second, but I have to say I have often like the cinematic versions of his stories much more than the books themselves.  This is no exception, although I would still recommend reading it.

The reason I like this movie so much is because of its structure.  Demme goes for a healthy dose of reality, making no bones about the fact that a psychopath can be both cultured and violently dangerous.  There is tension built throughout, with a number of images that remain afterward - images that are surprisingly lacking in over-the-top blood and gore.  And, yes, it was typical to go in that direction back at the time.  The Silence of the Lambs contents itself with letting us imagine most of what happened, filling in the blanks with quickly glimpsed crime photos and graphic descriptions.  While Catherine Martin goes through quite a lot, the idea of what might happen to her is stronger than if we had actually seen anything.  Brooke Smith plays her well, with quite a bit of subtlety that is usually not expected from victims in a movie like this.

The fact that the violence is held back works wonders when the violent scenes all do happen, encapsulated in Hannibal Lecter's escape.  At this point the movie pulls no punches, and any sympathy that might have been built up for Lecter, from his education, erudition or his mistreatment by Dr. Chilton, vanishes. 

Lastly, and most importantly, we have Clarice Starling.  Jodie Foster's portrayal, in my opinion, is largely responsible for influencing Gillian Anderson's portrayal of Dr. Dana Scully in The X Files.  From the hair style, to the attempts to be taken seriously by her peers in the FBI, Clarice Starling influenced a number of strong heroines throughout the 1990s.  Given all that, she is not played as a feminist crusader, but rather as someone who knows he is going to have to work twice as hard to prove herself as everyone else around her.  She is not afraid to speak up, but also knows when to hold back. Hell, even Jack Crawford, playing the mentor role needed for the hero to later succeed, manages some dynamic progression. 

Typically horror movies and thrillers do not win an Academy Award.  They rarely even get any serious attention from critics.  For once, in 1992, the Academy got it right, and this movie won a nice handful, including Best Picture.  25 after its release its influence can still be felt, and it still is the standard upon which thrillers are judged - especially its slightly underwhelming sequels.  19 is still an impressionable age, and I know that I have certainly judged similar movies on this one over the years, and continually find them wanting (or, like The Cell, pale imitations).

While people think I am pulling out my faux creepy persona when I say The Silence of the Lambs is my favorite movie, I'm truly trying to say that I appreciate good story telling and real tension over noise and flash.  This is one of the few movies that one can enjoy as visual literature, and not just a means to escape into the dark for a couple hours.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Anthony Heald, Scott Glenn
Director: Jonathan Demme

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