Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
The first time you see Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” always brings a shiver up my spine every time I watch the film. FBI trainee Clarice Starling has been asked to go to the prison where Lecter is being held, has heard about his sick nature, and has been warned not to approach the glass that separates his cell from the world. With much buildup given to her (and to us, as an audience), Clarice walks through the basement cells toward the last one on the left. When she arrives, there he is, standing in place and looking at her as if he were expecting her.
Hannibal Lecter is a psychotic serial killer who had been known to eat the remains of his victims. He was also a respected psychiatrist until his capture and imprisonment, and so whenever people like Clarice comes into his world, he delights in using his intelligence to play with their minds. That makes him one of the most interesting, fascinating villains to be found in any thriller.
“The Silence of the Lambs,” based on the novel by Thomas Harris, opens with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who is still in training at the FBI academy but is very bright and observant. Those characteristics and more convince the head of the FBI, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), to send her on a potentially dangerous mission—maybe not dangerous physically but possibly mentally. He wants her to visit the infamous Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and find out if he knows anything about a serial killer called Buffalo Bill, who skins his victims.
So, Clarice goes to the institution where he’s being held, and already, he’s enjoying himself by playing with her mind. He assumes immediately, and accurately, that she comes from a “white-trash” community and the FBI is her main escape. She responds by testing him, by seeing if he can use that same psychiatry on himself. His response is a line most often quoted from this movie:
“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” This is of course followed by the infamous sifting through his teeth (which was actually improvised by Hopkins).
Lecter does agree to offer a profile on Buffalo Bill, in exchange for quid pro quo. Clarice must reveal some things about herself, even traumatic events from her past, and then he in return will deliver a new piece of information about the killer. And so, he is having Clarice search within herself and playing with her psyche as each visit to Lecter reveals more and more.
Clarice is as tough as she can be during each situation such as this, and sometimes she even manages to play a mind game with Lecter as well, but there are times when she can’t help but react with frightened awe at Lecter’s interpretations. And we can’t either. The scenes involving Clarice and Lecter together are brilliant. They’re written intelligently and acted beautifully. Jodie Foster is quiet but attentive and very strong as Clarice, making her an appealing heroine to follow. Probably the best thing about her character visiting this intelligent, twisted killer is that because she is forced to reveal things about herself to this man, the character becomes multidimensional with each time they see each other. You understand where she came from, you know what led her to where she is in life, and you do feel like you do know her. Therefore, when she is put in real danger at the end of the film, during her ultimate encounter with Buffalo Bill, you root for her to get out of it.
And then there’s Anthony Hopkins, who is hands-down the most memorable aspect of “The Silence of the Lambs.” His performance in this film is nothing short of brilliant. He makes the role his own, making Lecter as frightening as he is smart and gracious. He’s the epitome of evil personified. It’s the performance that practically defines an actor’s career, and Hopkins’ chilling portrayal of Hannibal Lecter is always going to be remembered.
“The Silence of the Lambs” continues with Clarice as she joins the FBI in the pursuit of Buffalo Bill and it intersects with the subplot of Buffalo Bill, whose real name is Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), who is definitely not as sophisticated (or as clever) as Lecter. He’s a transvestite who is so intrigued by women that he’s even gone as far as to making a suit made out of women’s skin. He has already taken five victims, and in this film, he is holding his latest victim captive for days until he will finally kill her off and remove her skin as well. And so, there’s a race against time for the FBI to discover who the killer is and where he is so they can save the woman. I won’t go into the truly sick hobbies that this guy likes to perform when he’s alone, but I will say that it’s beyond disturbing. Granted, the scenes with Buffalo Bill aren’t as brilliantly written as the exchanges between Clarice and Lecter, but then again, what can be? This is a more traditional sick killer type, and I thought the contrast between him and the sophisticated Lecter is kind of interesting because you know there are different types of personalities for serial killers.
“The Silence of the Lambs” builds up to a climax in which Clarice does eventually find out who the killer is, and actually finds herself trapped in his house, and there’s a truly frightening sequence in which she is wandering through a dark room with her gun in hand and trying to find a way out, all while Buffalo Bill is watching her with night-vision goggles. That is a truly unnerving, suspenseful sequence. But if there’s a flaw in this climax, for me anyway, it’s that there’s no psychology involved. We don’t know much about the past of Jame Gumb, so there’s really nothing to discover that would pay off. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Clarice used something from his past against him to save herself and bring him down?
Another problem I had with the film is the imposing music score that indicates danger, mainly because I thought it was a little too much. I could already tell there was danger coming because of that score, so there weren’t that many surprises there. (Though, to be fair, most of the surprises that the music brings with them, I didn’t see coming.)
Something else to be said about “The Silence of the Lambs” is that it’s very well-made. Directed by Jonathan Demme and photographed by Tak Fujimoto, this film has a great look and a creepy atmosphere, along with a consistently creepy tone that is apparent throughout. In keeping with the spirit of the novel it was based on, the film is something unusual: a thriller that relies more on essence and sensibility than cheap thrills and blood and gore. It’s well-crafted (especially in the scenes involving Lecter and Clarice, with neat visual tricks thrown in to raise the tension) and smart and very skillful.