It’s amazing to think The Silence of the Lambs surprised Oscar pundits and audiences back in March of 1992, when it took home the “Big Five” at the Academy Awards ceremony, winning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. It was the first film to pull that off since the 1976 ceremony, where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest grabbed the Big Five, and to this day only the third film in history to do it (It Happened One Night was the other back at the 1935 Oscars).
But The Silence of The Lambs is still, 25 years later, the very best thriller of its kind. It is a lean, focused, unforgettable film, running like a Swiss watch from beat to beat, forever getting under our skin. Top to bottom it’s perfect, and it hearkened in an entire new wave of psychological thrillers, pushing those yuppie thriller Fatal Attraction imitators to the back burner. And without a single false beat, the film manages to approach themes of disturbing paternal relationships, personal growth, and the hero fighting preconception at every turn to get the job done.
The utilitarian genius of director Jonathan Demme, whose previous credits included (among others) the off-kilter road comedy Something Wild and The Talking Heads’ documentary Stop Making Sense, keeps the measured efficiency of the film in tact from start to finish. It bleeds into the performances as well. Jodie Foster is Clarice Starling, a West Virginia hayseed working to shed her hayseed-ness as a newbie in the FBI. Starling is all business, stripped of glamour and carrying an almost asexual vibe in her “good bag and cheap shoes.” The FBI is a man’s world, and rather than having a character blatantly voice this ideology, Demme simply gives us the feel of the sexism at play while the plot moves along. The sideways glances Starling catches, the smug elitism of others, all build a world of repression surrounding Starling, though she never backs down.
And when Starling is assigned to visit Dr. Hannibal Lecter – one of the most brilliant minds in the world who also happens to be a psychotic cannibal – in his maximum security, glass-encased prison cell deep in the bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital for The Criminally Insane, the suppressed misogyny of the FBI is exposed in a way. These madmen behind bars are driven even more insane by the appearance of, gasp, a woman! The inmate Migs has a rather disturbing opinion of Starling (and even a worse gift for her, eventually) and Lecter himself has her sized up before she even sees him standing at attention in the middle of his cell.
Brian Cox played Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s Red Dragon adaptation, Manhunter, back in 1986. And while Cox did admirable work, his Lecter was far too human. Anthony Hopkins, whose film career was fledgling at the time, reinvents the character, this monster, as subhuman. He is a machine of knowledge with any semblance of true human emotion or the ability to function within a society without his insatiable desire for carnage destroying those who are unfortunate enough to cross his path. Lecter has Starling’s number from go, and as this most unlikely duo push and pull against one another to try and find the whereabouts of a similar killer, Buffalo Bill, one of the more odd romances in cinematic history evolves and transforms in every scene.
Lecter may very well be in love with Starling, but their relationship bounces from paternal exploration, to psychiatry sessions, to a mutual respect. It all depends on how Lecter wants the moment to be; he’s in charge, and Starling is fully aware of it because, no matter how simple her upbringing may be, her will to rise above it is what keeps her pushing forward. In the end, when Starling finds and ultimately kills Buffalo Bill, it is a moment of which Starling would never have been prepared were it not for Lecter pushing her to look inside herself and find what makes her tick. He uncovers her ugly truths, and this exposure allows Starling to expel her demons so they cannot impede her growth and eventually defeat Bill.
And somehow we’ve made it this far without touching on Buffalo Bill, played brilliantly by Ted Levine, whose twangy molasses pipes defined the character. Bill is beyond disturbed, but a less confident film would go to great lengths to tell us how disturbed he actually is. There is very little exposition from Bill himself, very little hints into what made him such a psychopath, and scant glimpses of him at his full madness (except one highly disturbing scene everyone remembers). Bill is, like everyone else involved, a character who is only explained as far as we need him explained. Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally (working from Thomas Harris’s bestseller) allow the audience to fill in the gaps with their own imagination, which then allows the horror of the situation to seep into our subconscious, making it last.
As for the mechanics of the plot, The Silence of The Lambs is a masterclass in tension and mood. Sometimes the director’s camera work is crucial in conveying feeling, in playing a part in the story. Demme’s camera observes, allows the performances and situations to play out in unsettling ways, though the climax in the depths of Buffalo Bill’s house of horrors is when Demme’s camera shines. Shot mostly through night vision, the horror is palpable, leaping from the screen and singing dread into our minds. There are very few moments as unsettling as the moment when Bill’s hand reaches out, almost touching Starling’s hair.
The Silence of The Lambs spawned sequels, prequels, and imitators, and none have been able to recapture the magical confluence of events which brought the world this masterpiece. There is not an ounce of fat here, not a missed beat, and not a forgettable moment.