Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster, and Anthony Hopkins unleash a tour de force.
“The Silence of the Lambs”.
The movie would sweep the Oscars; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay (Adapted). It makes AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Movies” on both the original (#65) and 10th Anniversary (#74) editions. AFI honors Hopkin’s Hannibal Lecter with the top spot on their “100 Years… Heroes & Villains”, declaring him the greatest villain of all time. They honor Foster’s Clarice Starling on the same list, at number 6 on the heroes side. She is also the highest ranking female character on said list, which makes her the de facto greatest heroine of all time per AFI.
But most importantly to me, this is the first movie in this series that cracks my personal top ten.
I love this %$&#ing movie.
The movie is tightly scripted and tautly paced.
A serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” has been capturing and killing women, then partially skinning their corpses. In order to get potential insight into the killer’s personality, the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (Jack Crawford, as played by Scott Glenn) consults imprisoned serial killer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). In order to entice Lecter’s cooperation, Crawford sends FBI Trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) with a bogus questionaire – the thought being that if he were to send someone to ask Lecter for his help directly, the offer would be refused.
Starling, unaware of any pretense, is the perfect candidate for the job. Obviously suffering from the extreme ennui of imprisonment, Lecter takes to her imediately. His superior intellect sees through Crawford’s ruse, but he shares with Starling nonetheless, engaging her in a game of “quid pro quo” – She tells him about herself, he shares insights with her regarding “Buffalo Bill”.
And thus begins one of the most unique relationships in film history. The brilliant, imprisoned psychopath and the burgeoning FBI behavioral profiler. Together they dance an engrossing, absorbing dance – a game of cat and mouse impossible to take your eyes off of. Lecter almost assuredly knows from square one what “Bill” is doing and why he is doing it, but he refuses to simply give the answers to Clarice. Instead, he challenges her intellect, pushes the limits of her self awareness, forces her to grow as a both a person and an investigator. In turn, she not only provides him with a challenge, she treats him with respect and not as a monster.
The clock is ticking, however. When “Bill” randomly kidnaps his next victim, she turns out to be the daughter of US Senator, and the stakes are raised.
It’s at this point that we’re given insight into the horrific world of “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). He keeps his victims alive in a pit in order to starve them and loosen their skin prior to killing them and skinning them. It turns out the reason he’s skinning women is to craft a bodysuit of women’s skin to wear. “Bill” is a transexual who has been refused sex change surgery, and this has become his outlet for his frustration. His world is a dark basement, filled with moths, outfitted with a sewing room and a well for his victims. Its a dark and frightening place.
And now he has a prisoner. It’s only a matter of time for her.
The movie continues to build tension throughout its runtime, right up to the final confrontation between a scared shitless Clarice Starling and “Buffalo Bill” himself, which takes place in his darkened, disgusting lair. Along the way, Clarice grows as person and as an agent. And in the end, you can trust that it’s she, and not the rest of the FBI, who is responsible for stopping the elusive killer.
But as thrilling as this movie may be – and I do consider it the greatest “Thriller” of all time – this movie is not defined by it’s plot, or it’s action, or the suspense it manages to create.
No, “The Silence of the Lambs” is defined by two of the greatest characters of all time, crafted by two of the greatest performances of all time.
Let’s begin with Foster’s Starling.
As a character, Clarice Starling begins as the foal, weak kneed and unsure, still learning to walk. Her nervousness in her initial encounters with Dr. Lecter is palpable. But through the course of the movie, she grows stronger and stronger, standing up not only to Lecter, but to all the forces around her in the male dominated world. Eventually she proves triumphant even when pitted against the notorious slayer of women, “Buffalo Bill”. I read on a fortune cookie fortune somewhere (ok, probably somewhere else, but still) that Bravery isn’t about not being scared. It’s about being scared and yet doing what needs to be done anyways. I’ve never seen that little slice of wisdom personified better than it is during the climax to this film.
As an actress, Foster is astounding in this role. Her performance is so nuanced… it’s like she completely gets across every shred of thought and emotion that she needs to – via her facial expressions, line deliveries, body posture, what have you - without ever going over the top. She uses exactly the correct amount, the PERFECT amount of everything. And usually it’s subtle. I mean you can just read volumes into her character via her facial expressions alone. Resolute, intelligent, emotive, driven… I could go on and on.
If I were a one man voting committee on the “Academy Awards For All Time”, I swear Jodie Foster is coming away with the Best Actress statue for her performance in this role. It’s my single favorite performance by an actress ever.
And then there’s Hopkins…
I consider it a well known fact, but perhaps you’re not aware… Hopkins was only onscreen in this movie for about 16 minutes. That’s only 14% of the movie’s runtime. Not even 20 minutes and he created the greatest villain of all time. Although… another really funny thing is HE’S NOT THE ANTAGONIST IN THIS MOVIE! Bufallo Bill is the main villain. Right? That’s who they’re out to catch, isn’t it? Lecter is actually more of a reluctant, sick, scary ally. But the character is just so sick that people are totally focused on him. And they can’t get past how evil he is, so they consider him THE villain.
Now, it WAS a great performance, but I’m not going to say it would get my “Academy Award of All Time”, like Foster would. What I will say though, is I have never seen an actor take to a part with such obvious delight before or since. I mean every single second he is on screen you can practically feel how ecstatic Hopkins is to be playing this part. He relishes it. He throws himself into this role so wholeheartedly, and has so much fun doing it that it’s intoxicating to watch. I mean you can just sense that this guy was thinking “This is the greatest role I’ve ever been given and I am going to give it everything I have”. It’s just awesome to watch.
“The Silence of the Lambs” is such a good story, and so well scripted that this would have been a very good movie with just about any cast you wanted. But these two performers take these excellent parts and they absolutely NAIL them. They turn in matching performances for the ages in the same movie. Its an incredible thing, and it elevates this movie to legendary status.
They make it a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.