The Silence of the Lambs Review
“Silence of the Lambs”, based on the bestselling novel by Thomas Harris, is widely regarded as the greatest modern crime thriller ever committed to celluloid. Released to great critical acclaim back in 1991, this movie turned out two magnificent performances from Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. Spurning one sequel (“Hannibal”) and two prequels (“Red Dragon” [inferior to 1986's “Manhunter” in my opinion] and “Hannibal Rising”), this movie really was a ground breaking piece of filmmaking. In 1992 it picked up five Oscars for Best Actor - Anthony Hopkins; Best Actress - Jodie Foster; Best Director -Jonathan Demme; Best Picture and Best Screenplay. It also picked up nominations for best editing and best sound.
Jonathan Demme (“Married to the Mob”, “Philadelphia”, “The Manchurian Candidate”) takes the helm on “Lambs” in what is a seminal piece of filmmaking. Working with some very difficult and disturbing source material, he skillful weaves all unsettling content into an exciting, gripping, shocking and above all highly enjoyable movie. Gene Hackman (who owns the rights to the book) was supposed to make “Lambs” his directorial debut but found the source material too difficult to handle. Interestingly, Hackman was also planning on filling the shoes of Lecter himself, which would have been interesting to watch but thankfully did not transpire (as we would never have seen Hopkins' definitive performance).
Speaking of which, for those of you who don't already know, in “Lambs” Anthony Hopkins creates one of the most memorable and disturbing on screen characters with his portrayal of Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Evil, sick, unnerving, sophisticated and brilliant are just a few of the words that one could use to describe the enigmatic Lecter, who is also cultured and enjoys the finer things in life. Having practiced medicine/psychology for years, before turning to mal-practices involving psychological torture and the consumption of human flesh, Lecter was finally captured after years of abusing and killing those he saw deserving. Hopkins provides an acting master class for the audience as he gives an almost muscular performance with cold and clinical delivery of Lecter's classic lines (enhanced by those piercing eyes), punctuated with dark humour. Lecter is highly intelligent, cunning and above all completely psychotic with his former profession enabling him to manipulate minute flaws in the human psyche for his own twisted pleasure. Jodie Foster (“Taxi Driver”, “The Accused”, “Inside Man”) takes on what is her most challenging role to date as Clarice Starling, an astutely clever FBI agent who shows great promise with a mind for crime and an understanding of what make criminals tick. Foster is superb throughout and the fact that she shines so strongly in the blinding brilliance of Hopkins' portrayal of Lecter makes her performance even more impressive. Although the main plotline revolves around the exploits of Bill and Lecter (who steals the show), the story is about Starling and her struggle to overcome humble beginnings, and make her mark in the male dominated world of the early nineties
Clarice Starling is a trainee FBI agent, based in Quantico (Virginia), on the cusp of passing her final exams with honours. Bright and ambitious, Starling would like nothing more than to climb the ranks of the FBI and work in the Behavioral Science division. A golden egg rolls her way when senior FBI official, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn - “Backdraft”), who is impressed with Starling's progression (and possibly a bit more) enlists her help to track down elusive serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb (played by the impressive Ted Levine - “Death Train”). Bill has been abducting young women and mutilating their bodies in disturbing fashion (!) before disposing of their disfigured corpses. Crawford instructs Starling that she will meet with, and interview, the infamous Hannibal the Cannibal, who has information on Bill's profile but has not been forthcoming with this knowledge to other FBI officials. Demme expertly builds tension by describing Lecter and his exploits prior to his first on screen appearance, immediately raising the danger profile of this brilliant but deadly doctor.
We're first introduced to Lecter in his isolated and minimalistic Plexiglas fronted stone dungeon, at Baltimore State Prison for the Clinically Insane, completely shut off from the outside world. With a long list of precautions and rules for any of his visitors, the audience is cleverly alerted to the level of risk he poses to anyone who comes into contact with him. Lecter, appearing unnervingly calm and sophisticated, greets Starling with curtsy that is soaked with distinct undertones of menace. The lighting effects that are used in these scenes (and also throughout the movie) are superb and really serve to illuminate (if you'll excuse the pun) the terrifying nature of this inmate. Within fifteen minutes, Lecter has disturbingly revealed Starlings ruse to enlist his assistance to locate Buffalo Bill, and also elucidates and dissects a huge portion of her personality and motivation. Starling, although amazed and taken aback at his perception, holds her ground with a quick rebuttal of his attempts to throw her off balance. This only serves to increase Lecter's interest in the first female that he has spoken to in eight years and the fact that she is intelligent, vulnerable and pure is an added bonus for the good doctor. Lecter proceeds to form a bond with Starling during their next couple of meetings as he slowly peels away her steely exterior and gets completely inside her head. He also uses his immense knowledge of the human thought process to plant seeds of pity for his situation in the mind of Starling (and in the mind of the audience). What makes this connection even more thrilling is the fact that Starling was explicitly warned not to disclose any personal information. Foster expertly portrays Starling as unsettled and on edge as Lecter, under the masterful control of Hopkins, probes her psyche to reveal her deepest, dark fear. Lecter is obviously attracted to Starling, both physically and mentally, as he draws empathy from her and feeds her cryptic information about Bill's whereabouts (as he was a former patient) while plotting his escape.
When Bill makes Catherine Martin (a realistic performance by Brooke Smith -“Grey's Anatomy”), who is the daughter of a State Senator, his next victim the stakes are raised considerably to bring this methodical killer to justice. The information that Lecter possess becomes even more crucial and dramatically intensifies his exchanges, “Quid Pro Quo”, with Starling. At this stage the movie picks up the pace as the race is on to locate Bill before he makes another brutal killing for the benefit of his own sick fashion sense. Demme made a very intelligent decision in keeping the two main plotlines completely separate, only allowing them to converge in the closing scenes. Bill's scenes involving Catherine, and the Lecter/Starling sequences, both run simultaneously which affords Demme the opportunity to flick between these to add to the excitement and inject pace into the proceedings whenever he chooses. The effect is almost distracting as I found myself enraptured by the fencing between Lecter/Starling only to have the focus switched to the equally mesmerizing Buffalo Bill scenes with Catherine trapped in his labyrinthine dungeon. Back and forth we go, as Demme skillfully interweaves the two stories. Coupled with a thrilling climax and clever subplot closure involving the now free Lecter as he “has an old friend for dinner”, storyline prgression and execution from all involved in this presentation is practically flawless.
“Lambs” is truly one of the great cinematic experiences and is up there for repeated watch-ability with “Aliens” and “Gladiator”, simply one of those movies that I would always watch if it was on television even though I already own a digital copy. It's a testament to this movie that it can hold its own with these action laden pieces as it contains few action sequences itself. With a mesmerizing performance by Hopkins, who does more acting with his piercing eyes than most can manage with their entire body, opposite Foster's wonderful portrayal of Starling, it's very difficult to imagine these characters being played by anyone else. The almost tense relationship, coupled with the respect that these two great Oscar winning actors have for each others ability, creates an electrifying dynamic, adding to the realism and immersive nature of the movie. The success of “Lambs” can be accredited partially, if not completely, to the unparalleled performances of Foster and particularly Hopkins. Not since Brando and De Niro both lifted their statues have I witnessed two finer performances. Lecter is portrayed as having the innate ability to dissect his subject's personality, and uses aspects of this knowledge to toy and torment, such as his comments about Starling's shoe/handbag combo and the pitfalls of breastfeeding. These add some delightful black comedy to the intensity of the main plotline.
Aside from these two spectacular performances, the rest of the cast in the movie including Ted Levine, Anthony Heald and Scott Glenn all give fantastic performances. In fact taking the whole cast, including extras, into consideration there really is not one weak link in the chain. It's refreshing to see a wide gamut of characters (with strong acting from all involved) that are intelligent with no token stupidity for cheap laughs or easy plot transitions. Although Demme has created a dialogue orientated movie he does punctuate these periods of relative inactivity with some shocking and violent brutality. Coupled with an exciting dual storyline that contains plenty of excitement to keep the audience enthralled, beautiful production values, clever photography (Tak Fujimoto) and masterful direction, “Lambs” really is a must see movie. An intelligent and sometimes brutal crime thriller that has paved the way for a whole new genre of films including the very popular “Saw” franchise.