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The Silence Of The Lambs

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rated: R
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: February 1991
Genres: Classic, Horror, Suspense

*Also starring: Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, Diane Baker, Charles Napier, Roger Corman, Chris Isaak

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

When I first saw "The Silence of the Lambs" on Valentine's Day in 1991, I found it chilling and intense but not much more than a sophisticated slasher film "with a little taste." Now, in the year 2001, ten years later after its release, I find it is far smoother and tighter than I thought. This is more than a chilling, intense thriller - it is a psychological thriller and character study that often resembles an unusual love story. Let me explain further.

As the film opens, we are introduced to a young, virile woman running in the woods, training to be an FBI agent. She is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), an ambitious woman eager to study criminal psychology and behavioral science. FBI Section Chief Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) wants Clarice to run a test on Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a psychiatrist who also happens to be a cannibal and is being held in a Baltimore prison surrounded by thick glass walls.

Crawford: "Do you spook easily Starling?"

Clarice: "Not yet sir." 

Clarice is determined to question Dr. Lecter and decipher any knowledge he might have about a serial killer on the loose known as Buffalo Bill aka Jame Gumm (Ted Levine). This killer likes to skin the humps of heavyset girls and may possibly be a transsexual. Apparently, Lecter knows him very well. The initial meeting of Lecter and Clarice is enough to give people goosebumps and nightmares for weeks. We enter a cavernous prison underground surrounded by some obscenely red lighting and red gates, as if we were entering Hell (a heavy murmur that gets louder and louder is heard on the soundtrack). She meets Lecter who stands motionless in his cell whispering, "Good Morning." Their conversation is so memorable that it stands as one of the most classic introductions of evil characters to grace the silver screen since Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Lecter analyzes Clarice to the fullest, fully aware of her second-rate shoes, the disguising of her West Virginia accent and knowing she would do anything to keep away from her homely existence by going so far as to join the FBI. In this scene, we see how Jodie Foster's Clarice works - she maintains her cool and composure without crying, though she wants to. Then she turns the tables on Lecter, asking if he has the temerity to look at himself and analyze his own behavior. This gets to Lecter who has finally met his match in the form of an ambitious FBI trainee, who also happens to be a woman.

Based on Thomas Harris's novel, "Silence of the Lambs" involves and engages us from the start, closing in on an investigation of murders in the midwest of women found in ditches or lakes with their skins removed. It is all part of the Buffalo Bill murder spree and Clarice needs Lecter to provide crucial details, such as Buffalo Bill's real name and whereabouts. An exchange has to occur as she fools Lecter into thinking he can be moved from Baltimore to a pleasant island known as Plum Island where he can roam the beach freely "under Swat team surveillance, of course." But the film is not just interested in grisly details of murders or scamming jailed killers. Each passing event and sequence invites us to see how Clarice Starling is affected and changed by them. And we also see how she is affected by Lecter and how he gets inside her head. After their initial meeting, Clarice walks to her car, reminded of memories of her father and cries.

Clarice Starling is also the focus of "The Silence of the Lambs" as we see how a woman lives and breathes in a man's world, and how she copes with her slain father who was a cop killed on the line of duty. We see two brief flashbacks of her as a child, one where she is greeted by her father and another where she is at his funeral. They pinpoint to a woman who has her emotions in check but is unable to forget her past thanks to Lecter's intervention in her psychological makeup.

And how can a short, ambitious, sincere woman survive in a man's world? Several scenes indicate that her every encounter with a man results in romantic interest. For example, there is her initial encounter with Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), Lecter's psychiatrist, who reminds Clarice that the town of Baltimore is fun "if you have the right guide." One entomologist asks her to go out for "cheesburgers and beer."

More often than not, Clarice is reminded that she is a minority. There are several examples such as when Clarice enters an elevator of tall, imposing men. At the mortuary where a slain victim of Buffalo Bill's is being autopsied, Crawford tells the sheriff that certain elements of the sex crime should not be discussed in front of Clarice. Yet she maintains her cool and shows determination and persistence, no matter who gets in her way. It is doubly ironic that Hannibal Lecter is the only man who shows her some level of respect.

The film is directed by Jonathan Demme ("Beloved," "Melvin and Howard") and he has a fascinating device in the film that is also used sparingly in "Philadelphia." He shows us mostly close-ups of his characters and shifts in reverse angle shots by showing another character off-center. Often the characters seem to be looking straight at us - a subjective device that would often seem distracting is cleverly used in the film, particularly the meetings between Clarice and Lecter. The subjectivity forces us to study their faces and understand what they are thinking and feeling.

The casting is impeccable. Jodie Foster is unequivocally seamless as Clarice Starling - tender, tough, sincere, argumentative, vulnerable. She has her flaws but shows fierce ambition and all the characters in the film know it. Anthony Hopkins (thankfully not typecast, though he might have been) is sheer excellence as Lecter. He has remarkable stillness and a quiet, calm voice that carries a sense of understated malice - he has a way with words and can tell what kind of fragrance a woman wears. More than that, he can get inside your skin and rattle your nerves. Lecter also has a way with biting people's cheeks while listening to Bach's "Goldberg Variations." Amazingly, Hopkins is only on screen for twenty minutes but his presence looms large throughout. Both actors won deserved Oscars for their roles.

There are so many memorable moments in its 118 minute running time that remain etched in one's memory. Clarice's meetings with Lecter are all exceptionally shot and edited. I love her story of the screaming lambs and the one lamb she tried to save (not to mention the priceless shot of Lecter's tears after hearing her story). The moment when Clarice shakes Crawford's hand after getting her official FBI badge. The intricately shot scene at a building where Lecter makes his extraordinary escape while FBI agents circle his cell. The unquestionably suspenseful climax where Clarice hunts for Buffalo Bill in his subterranean lair (look closely at shots of moths and swastikas). The autopsy scene of the slain girl which is quite heartbreaking to watch, thanks to Foster's controlled yet emotional observations. And there is so much more.

Another exceptional aspect as to why "The Silence of the Lambs" works is because it chooses to be uniquely disturbing without showing much gore. A film about a cannibal and a serial killer with a predilection for skin could very well show plenty of gore and bloody executions. Instead, director Demme implies as much as he shows, forcing us to imagine certain unseen events. My favorite moment is when Dr. Chilton shows Clarice a picture of what Lecter did to a helpless nurse - a close-up of her reaction to the photo says so much more than what is actually in the photo.

At heart, "The Silence of the Lambs" is really about the relationship between Lecter and Clarice, resulting in a love story of sorts between a monster and his mate. "People will say we are in love," says Lecter. Of course, it is more of a mutual respect for one another, not a literal love story of a sexually attractive couple. Clarice and Lecter both test and size each other up, and continue being personal and up close. It is only fitting that this film was released on February 14th.

Copyright 2001 Jerry Saravia

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