The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Director: Jonathan Demme
Based on Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel of the same name, The Silence of the Lambs is a dark macabre psychologically-themed horror film that manages to succeed to a remarkable degree whereas other films failed. It swept the Academy Awards upon release, and is one of the few horror films to win such critical acclaim with the Academy. To date, there are only a handful of horror films that have been nominated for Best Picture: The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), The Sixth Sense (1999), Black Swan (2010), and Get Out (2017). One could also make the case that Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) should be included in this group as well. Jonathan Demme was also the director of other celebrated films like Philadelphia (1993) but tragically he died of cancer in 2017.
In The Silence of the Lambs Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, a new FBI recruit who is challenged by her lack of physical prowess, but who excels in criminal psychology. She is tasked with hunting down a vicious serial killer named “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine) a deranged man who has been stalking and skinning women throughout the Midwest. As each scene unfolds we see Starling as she is ogled and condescended to by her male peers, she is a lone woman in a grey and unforgiving world. But there is one man who seems to take her seriously: Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), an imprisoned serial killer/cannibal who was formerly a forensic psychologist and is unquestionably a genius. He behaves like a well-cultured gentleman, an orderly and well-read artist, with a much deeper knowledge of human psychology than his FBI interrogator. Starling attempts to use Dr. Lecter to track down “Buffalo Bill” because he was once a patient of Dr. Lecter. And herein lies the film’s true horror: an intelligent and capable woman with a dark past is isolated and victimized by a brilliant but temporarily imprisoned serial killer. Only a thin layer of glass divides them, danger is but a few footsteps away. Dr. Lecter serves as a fatherly figure of sorts for Starling. Yet he also gains a certain sick pleasure out of discovering and exploiting her vulnerabilities.
Dr. Lecter leads Starling down a trail of clues that suggest “Buffalo Bill” is not a purely evil person, but rather he was abused and hates himself -he is a troubled man seeking to build a full female skin suit for himself. Starling somewhat accidentally discovers the true “Buffalo Bill” in a highly intense scene that leaves her literally in the dark while “Buffalo Bill” stalks her with night vision goggles (reminiscent of Starling’s horrid childhood experience and dream of screaming lambs before they are slaughtered), while Dr. Lecter escapes from his prison cell and disappears. In the end, Starling manages to kill “Buffalo Bill” and she graduates to become a full agent. She receives a call from Dr. Lecter who has escapes to the Bahamas and plans on “having an old friend for dinner…”
Anthony Hopkins delivers an extraordinary performance as the mesmerizingly creepy Dr. Hannibal Lecter, on par with the twisted psychology of Norman Bates or a Lon Chaney-esque character. However, Jodie Foster also offers a terrific performance as Clarice Starling in what was no doubt a challenging role –she is a driven woman who is also somewhat fragile to the horrific evils that exist in the world. Some have interpreted The Silence of the Lambs as a strictly feminist film, however the true terror lies in the fact that it is a feminist-skeptical film. Or at least it does not romanticize the strong independent woman as would no doubt be handled in cartoonishly predictable fashion today. The world is a troubled and chaotic place in The Silence of the Lambs no matter what your ideology. Starling is almost never taken seriously, except perhaps by Dr. Lecter. The irony of the film is the safety she feels in the presence of Dr. Lecter yet also how disturbed we feel amidst his strange charisma and unyielding confidence. Throughout the film, there are lots of moments filled with uncomfortable gazes facing directly into the camera, and the cinematography is impeccable giving us a sense of just how small and out of place Starling truly is in this dangerous, unpredictable world.