RETRO REVIEW – ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

Review by J.T. Johnson

5-stars

ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: January 30, 1991
DIRECTOR: Jonathan Demme
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Tak Fujimoto
WRITER: Ted Tally
MUSIC: Howard Shore

“The Silence of the Lambs” was released in February 1991. While it is technically a police thriller more than anything else, it is generally regarded as one of the most critically recognized horror films of all time. For me, it is easily one of my favorite films with one of my favorite performances in a movie made up of great performances.

There is a serial killer on the loose known only as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). The FBI thinks that there is a convicted serial killer that could help with the case. Therefore, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), who leads the Behavioral Science Unit, enlists the aid of a trainee named Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to go and interview Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) in order to gain clues that may help the FBI in catching Buffalo Bill.

Earlier, I called the film a police thriller and while that is its official tag, it really plays out more like a dark fairytale. Clarice replaces the traditionally male hero who must battle with two monsters to save a damsel in distress. She must play a game of wits with Hannibal Lector and then face the main monster in the film’s climax.

There is also imagery to support the fairytale theme. The cell where Clarice must meet with Hannibal looks more like a dungeon than a traditional prison cell. Also, in Buffalo Bill’s house, he keeps the damsel in a dark well within the basement of his house.

Beyond that comparison, the movie is also a positive feminist piece. Clarice is a very competent if inexperienced FBI student. Throughout the film, she has to deal with being a female in the typically male dominated FBI. She is always getting peculiar looks from the men around her and while this may read as though it is forced down your throat, it is really done in a subtle manner and it simply states the fact that Clarice has to deal with a Bureau that isn’t quite used to women being at the center of things.

As far as the movie itself is concerned, it was beautifully shot by director Jonathan Demme and his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. The whole movie has a gothic thriller tone that has been imitated several times since the film’s release but few have been able to stand up to it. Demme also had another unique idea for how to shoot the film involving the characters’ perspectives.

Throughout the movie, the camera will sometimes switch to a character’s perspective, particularly between Hannibal and Clarice. This allows the audience to do two things. First, they’re seeing the world through a certain character’s eyes, but they are also seeing the reactions of the other character directly allowing the audience to feel like they are involved in the conversation.

Also adding to the movie’s gothic status is a riveting score from Howard Shore. They say that what makes up half of a movie’s appeal is the music and in the case of this movie, that is especially true. Shore knows how to use a classical music score to invoke certain emotions from the audience and it also gives the film a certain operatic quality not always found in these types of films.

Before I go, I can’t leave here without talking about the performances of course. I don’t really know what I can say about Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal that hasn’t already been said before. His calm demeanor unsettles you because it is the opposite of the monster that has been described to us by previous scenes. Hopkins also utilizes the close-ups of the first person perspectives to such an effective degree that it adds to his genuine creepy factor.

Hopkins won the Academy award for the role of Hannibal. With the role only taking up 24 minutes of screen time, it is one of the shortest roles to win the award for Best Actor, adding another element to Hopkins’ legendary performance.

I will say, though, I saw that bastard blink a couple of times, so the whole “he never blinks” claim is a pure myth… Granted, he only blinks once or twice that I can remember and it doesn’t really take away from his creepy ass performance in the least, but he does blink! Beyond Hopkins, though, there is one performance that I don’t think gets recognized as much as it should due to the popularity of the Hannibal character.

Foster is without a doubt one of the greatest film actors of all time. She plays Clarice with supreme confidence but somehow manages to go against that confidence at times to reveal Clarice’s vulnerability when she is facing a man’s world head on or going up against Hannibal. Hearing her tell the story of her time on a ranch where lambs were being slaughtered gets me every time.

The Academy honored Foster with an Academy Award as well for her performance. I feel as though she earned it even more than Hopkins did. After all, the entire film is on her shoulders and she makes it look easy as if the entire film wouldn’t have fallen apart had she not been there. I’ve seen a list of the actresses that they originally wanted for this role at the time and none of them would have been able to pull it off quite the way Foster did.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention anything about what I think is wrong with the film. That’s because “The Silence of the Lambs” is one of those few movies where I can’t really think of anything I don’t like. Sure, I could nitpick just as I could nitpick any other film, but sometimes you just have to acknowledge a true classic when you see one. 26 years after its initial release, “The Silence of the Lambs” still lives up to its legendary status.

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