Silence of the Lambs was a rule breaker from the start. Contrary to convention, its primary relationship is between its diminutive female heroine and an urbane serial killer. It cleaned up at the Academy Awards despite being essentially a highbrow horror film that was released in mid-February, approximately eight months before the start of “Oscar season.” Moreover, Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor despite being on screen for about 16 minutes.
Directed by Jonathan Demme with moody cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, Silence eschews stylistic flourishes for an all-permeating atmosphere of dread. Hopkin’s performance at psychologist-turned-serial-killer Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is a study in submerged menace. Coiled, unblinking and mesmerizing as a cobra in its cage, he is frightening not in spite of being charming but precisely because he is so charming and sophisticated. He’s the ideal dinner guest up until the moment he eats your liver.
As Silence begins, Lecter is imprisoned in an institution for the criminally insane while another serial killer, nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” because he skins his victims, is on the loose. Lecter’s old nemesis at the FBI, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) wants to pick the killer’s brain to build a profile of “Bill.” The brilliant ex-psychologist has simply toyed with the previous agents that Crawford sent, so the FBI agent tries a new tact, sending an ambitious trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to try to win Lecter’s trust.
The relationship between Lecter and Clarice, not a romance but not that different from one either, drives the movie forward. Lecter agrees to help her build a profile of Buffalo Bill, but only if she does exactly what Jack Crawford told her not to do, “let Hannibal Lecter inside [her] head.”
The search for Buffalo Bill gets new urgency when another victim (Brooke Smith) disappears. Based on his previous victims, the FBI knows they only have days to find him before she turns up with her skin missing.
Jodie Foster’s work as Clarice is every bit the equal of Hopkins. Wounded and vulnerable but also focused and determined, Agent Starling doggedly attacks the obstacles that Lecter throws in her path as well as those that come from Lecter’s supercilious jailer, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), her own inexperience or simply being a young woman in a male-dominated profession. Director Demme effectively highlights Clarice’s isolation by surrounding her with larger men, who react to her like men usually do. If it were actually possible to physically undress someone with your eyes, Jodie Foster would have spent most of the film in the nude.
Actors in secondary roles are equally impressive. Scott Glenn brings an almost fatherly authority to his role as Crawford and was considerably aided by working with John Douglas, the FBI profiler on whom Crawford was based. As Buffalo Bill’s newest victim, Brooke Smith brings considerable spit and fire to a role that could have been much more passive. Of course, she also got help from Ted Tally’s brilliant script.
Finally, Buffalo Bill himself, when we finally meet him, is such a vivid portrait of sociopathic single-mindedness that actor Ted Levine probably had trouble finding roles that didn’t involve skinning women for a while after Silence.
Stacked up against other horror films, other crime procedurals or even other cinematic interpretations of Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs has few equals. It will scare you, probably not gross you out and never insult your intelligence. It may, however, make you think twice before helping an injured stranger load furniture into his van.