The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Directed by Jonathan Demme – Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, Frankie Faison, Tracey Walter, Charles Napier, Roger Corman, Daniel von Bargen, and Chris Isaak.
When you take a look at a heralded movie like THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS 21 years after its release, the only way you’re going to bring something new to the table is if you offer a dramatic reassessment of the film. Like if I said, “You know, in hindsight, LAMBS is good, but it’s not that good. There’s some structural issues and the acting isn’t all that great and did it really deserve to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay? No. No, it didn’t.”
Well, I’m not going to say that. Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is an extraordinarily good movie, representing the absolute best in dramatic storytelling. LAMBS is every bit as brilliant now as it was back in 1991, and while I generally don’t give a flip about awards, if we’re going to have them, it’s films like LAMBS that deserve to be recognized.
The FBI is after a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), who likes to kidnap women and then skin them before dumping the body in the river, and to assist in the investigation, Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) recruits trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to interview imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to see if he can help with the investigation. It’s a bit more complicated than that as Crawford doesn’t tell Starling exactly why he’s sending her in to interview Lecter because he doesn’t want Lecter to be able to pull that information from her brain. Lecter is, of course, the smartest guy in the movie, but it’s not like everyone else is a big dummy, and one of the joys in watching LAMBS is how smart people manipulate other smart people in order to attempt to get what they want.
For all of the much-deserved praised heaped on Hopkins and Lecter, Foster and Starling are every bit as fantastic. Starling is one of the most wonderfully well-rounded characters you’ll find, and just like Lecter, she is full of contradictions. Still a trainee, Starling has limited field experience and while she’s brave, she’s also perfectly frightened at times. When we see her freak out after a patient in the psych ward tosses his ejaculate at her face and then cry when she gets to her car, it makes the scenes where she forces her way into a storage shed stronger. Foster’s Starling proves you can be a strong, independent woman and still be less than perfect and afraid.
LAMBS employs a rather unique double narrative strategy as the Lecter and Buffalo Bill plots only brush up against one another; Starling has one plot going with the hunt for Bill and another going with her developing relationship with Lecter. Crawford wants Bill’s insight, but it’s not like he’s bringing Lecter in to for a Marvel Team-Up. Crawford and Lecter have an antagonistic relationship, so the FBI man uses the trainee to be his go-between. The real story of LAMBS is the rise of Clarice Starling, but it’s not the kind of arc where she rises from nothing to everything, but rather where she simply proves she can play her part and help solve the case.
I really dig that about LAMBS. Demme and his team see no need to push things to artificially-elevated levels in LAMBS. This is a simple story about a manhunt for a kidnapped girl who’s got a few days to live before her kidnapper kills her. There’s a natural urgency to the film that doesn’t need fancy camera tricks or editing to ratchet up the intensity of the situation. Combine this with the almost diversionary chats between Lecter and Starling and LAMBS is actually a very enjoyable film about a very horrible situation.
It’s the interviews between Lecter and Starling that truly make LAMBS a special film. Lecter revels in the discussion, which allows him to use his considerable brain power to slice apart people psychologically. The scripts best moments are when Starling is trying to get answers from Lecter about Bill and Lecter is trying to dig into Starling’s past. It’s a masterful set-up and execution as Lecter is always in control, even when he’s trapped behind bars and Starling is struggling to swim even when she can barely keep her head above water. Lecter has the freedom of knowing what he’s capable of doing, and Starling is hampered by not knowing.
Lecter digs into Starling’s past in a manner that’s psychologically aggressive, using fear and shame to dig the truth out of her. He mocks her accent, mocks her attire, questions her relationship with Crawford, and pushes her to dredge up all the worst aspects of her life. Lecter’s psychological deconstruction of Starling is the best part of the movie and largely relegates the manhunt to the background. Even during the latter stages of the film, after Lecter has escaped from containment and all-but-disappeared from the movie, his presence resonates.
As Starling gets information piecemealed out to her by Lecter, the investigation continues on its way. They realize Bill keeps the women he kidnaps alive for three days so he can starve them out a bit. He wants their skin to make himself a new flesh suit because he’s f*cking crazy.
LAMBS works by highlighting one-on-one interpersonal relationships: Starling and Lecter, Starling and Crawford, Lecter and Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), and Bill and his latest kidnapped victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). While there are other characters in the film, it’s these four relationships that continually spin through the movie. It’s Bill who gets the best line in the movie, too. For all the verbal goodness that comes out of Lecter’s mouth, it’s Bill’s, “Put the f*cking lotion in the basket!” exclamation that I always feel like quoting for days afterward. (Not that I can; it doesn’t really work when you’re stuck in an administrative meeting to tell the idiot at the other end of the table to shut up and put the f*cking lotion in the basket. You can think it, but you can’t say it.)
Ted Levine’s performance as Bill is incredibly memorable for its outlandishness, just as Glenn’s performance as Crawford is memorable for its restraint. There’s a whole host of known actors in smaller roles peppered throughout LAMBS, too: Frankie Faison as Barney, a worker at the original hospital that holds Lecter captive; Charles Napier as a cop that Lecter murders; Roger Corman as an FBI director that gives Crawford a stern talking to; and Daniel von Bargen and Chris Isaak as members of the police team that attempts (and fails) to keep an escaped Lecter contained.
In the end, though, this is Jodie Foster’s movie. Tough and vulnerable, assured and frightened, Foster gives the performance of her career as Clarice Starling. As great as Hopkins is (and this is the performance of his career, too), it’s Foster that carries LAMBS. We might be fascinated by the monster, but it’s the protagonist who takes us home.
I wonder if THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS’ legacy hasn’t been a tad tarnished in some people’s eyes by all the craptacular sequels that followed. To this day, it’s the non-Hopkins film, Michael Mann’s Manhunter with Brian Cox as Hannibal “Lektor,” that comes closest to matching LAMBS’ brilliance. Bad sequels can’t really tarnish an original film, of course, just our perceptions of that film. If that’s happened to you with LAMBS, just go ahead and pop it in the DVD player. It won’t take long for you to remember its cinematic greatness.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is, quite simply, an American masterpiece.