Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
At 12 years old, I was old enough to be interested in live-action movies when The Silence of the Lambs came out, but not by any means old enough to watch an R-rated psychological thriller, at least by my parents’ reckoning. My parents watched the film when it came out on home video. I gather my mother thought it was fairly good — she always liked crime thrillers, although she was sometimes put off by gore — while my father wasn’t so fond of it. I’ve been hearing “it’s overrated” for around twenty years. But as Dad and I often disagree on films, I’ve long wondered what I would think of it myself. After all, this is a very highly-acclaimed film; it has a Best Picture win, several AFI rankings, and a top 25 spot on IMDb to its credit. It has a considerable reputation to live up to.
Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an FBI agent in training at the behavioral analysis unit at Quantico, Virginia. The bureau has been investigating a serial killer that has been dubbed “Buffalo Bill” by the media, and Starling’s boss comes up with a ploy to get more information. In a maximum security prison is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychologist who himself is also a serial killer. His insight could prove invaluable, but the director knows Lecter will never open up to a regular agent, and not if he knows he’s being approached for that purpose. So he sends Starling to interview Lecter, on the pretense that it’s to develop a profile on Lecter himself. And so begins a dual game of cat-and-mouse; one physical as the FBI attempts to track down Buffalo Bill, and one mental as Lecter attempts to get into Starling’s mind, and she his.
Starling and Lecter get all of the character development in the film, to the point where it’s almost possible to forget there are other characters at all. Foster does very well as Starling, exhibiting the mixture of confidence and vulnerability that would be expected in a trainee. She’s intelligent and take-charge, but she’s also in danger of getting in over her head. But Hopkins is unquestionably the star here, as his performance of Lecter is at once magnetic and genuinely creepy. All too often in movies and television, a criminal’s mind games seem like they’re only working on the heroes because the writers have decided that they’ll work; they aren’t convincing on their own merits. In the case of Lecter, however, it’s far easier to believe that he could unsettle those around him that deeply.
When it comes to the plot and characterization, there is a bit of difficulty in trying to consider the originality of the film. It has to be remembered that although it definitely is building off its predecessors in the genre, it’s also a film that has been built off of itself in the 22 years since its release. I’m afraid I can’t remember the title, but I once read a novel where a detective complained that nowadays every psycho in interrogation has to try out their Hannibal Lecter act. It’s true, and it means that one has to be aware that the sense of familiarity is largely because of what has come after the film.
That said, there is a distinct weakness to the film itself that isn’t a matter of recognizing its imitators. That weakness would be any part of the film where Lecter isn’t on screen. Lecter is the most dynamic character, but while he’s a villain, he’s not the villain. He’s not the target of the manhunt in this movie, and as a result there’s a split between where the movie focuses its plot and where it focuses its efforts in character development. When Lecter is not on the screen, we see Foster reacting to two-dimensional cut-outs, and performing an investigation that is no more complex than a basic police procedural. Difficulties in solving the crime are resolved as much through chance as anything, and even when Starling figures out part of the mystery, it doesn’t feel like it’s all that clever — rather than feeling like this was a difficult problem that she powered through intellectually, it feels like it was obvious and she was simply being obtuse not to figure it out sooner. Given the emphasis her meetings with Lecter put on intellect, this leads to a mild feeling of disappointment on that front. There’s a smart heroine, and a smart villain, but there is not a smart mystery here, and there needed to be.
So yes, on that measure, I’m going to have to say that the film is overrated, if only a little bit. It’s excellent on characterization, at least on its two main figures, but the crimesolving aspect is lacking. But I can certainly see where it gets a lot of its praise, especially that centered around Lecter. (Although I do have to wonder, on the side, about Entertainment Weekly ranking this the fourth scariest film of all time; there’s a difference between thrilling and scary, and this film is hardly scary. That’s not a complaint about the film, just about EW and other sources that stretch definitions too liberally.)
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.