The Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. This is another great Nineties’ classic (like the recently reviewed Braveheart, 1995): everyone has seen it, the character of Hannibal Lecter played by Hopkins is extremely famous, and the movie itself is widely believed to be a cinema masterpiece. Is this fame well-deserved? My answer is yes, it is. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a great thriller made extremely well and Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins gave life to two very powerful characters, Clarice Starling and Dr. Lecter, respectively.
What’s the movie about? I know that you know already, but here’s the plot (avoiding spoilers for the few who haven’t yet seen the movie): Jack Crawford (played by Scott Glenn), a veteran FBI agent, sends the young Clarice Starling to talk to the inmate Lecter to find some clues in order to stop a serial killer (nicknamed Buffalo Bill) who’s kidnapping girls and killing them after skinning them. The two establish a very special relationship, powerful and dangerous at the same time, and thanks to the revelations of Lecter the investigation begins be fruitful. But everything must be done quickly because the killer has just kidnapped the daughter of a senator…
One thing for sure: the pace of the film is crazy, there’s not even a minute to breathe, with one event after each other, each one a surprise for the viewer. Technically, it’s top notch: Demme is an excellent director, the dark cinematography is amazing, the soundtrack by Howard Shore (the same guy who composed the Lord of the Rings’ soundtrack, just saying) is beautiful, and all the actors do a great job. Suffice it to say that Hopkins wasn’t the first Lecter on screen: none other than Brian Cox had played the same character in Michael Mann’s Manhunter in 1986, but no one remembers that (although that movie has been a bit reevaluated lately). Everyone remembers Hopkins’ Lecter, of course!
One of the strengths of the film is certainly the relationship between Starling and Lecter: the doctor likes her, but he’s a psychopath with tendencies towards cannibalism, so everything is extremely creepy! For example, when another inmate treats badly Clarice, the good doctor convinces him to commit suicide without any apparent effort. On the other hand, the strength of the character of Hannibal the Cannibal could be seen as a weakness of the film: blinded by the dark charm of that character, Starling’s investigation remains almost in the background, as well as the actual murderer that the FBI is looking for. You won’t think of the character played by Ted Levine when thinking about The Silence of the Lambs! Basically, you can criticize the movie for the same reason that Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) were criticized: the supposed protagonist is obscured by another character (as for the two examples I made, the Joker is much more iconic than Batman).
Is it really a big problem? No, or at least not for me. I never considered it an issue in the case of the Batman movies I mentioned, and I don’t judge it as problematic in the case of this film by Jonathan Demme. Is Lecter’s character more memorable than the rest? Yes, of course it is, it would be stupid to deny it, but for me this doesn’t affect the quality of the film, far from it! Lecter has become a modern monster, as well as Michael Myers (John Carpenter’s Halloween, 1978) and Ghostface (the Scream saga by Wes Craven, 1996-2011). Kudos for that!
The influence of The Silence of the Lambs on modern cinema is remarkable, almost revolutionary. Of course three more films came out with Hannibal in them (the most famous is Hannibal, released in 2001 and directed by Ridley Scott). But, more importantly, it should be remembered that the movie came out in 1991: in the Eighties, thrillers like this one were rare! There’s a female protagonist and she’s not presented as a sexy bomb; there are two antagonists, one of which develops an ambiguous relationship with the protagonist; there’s a strong victim, the senator’s daughter… It’s not exactly the classic Eighties’ thriller with electronic music and all-muscles-protagonists (of course there were also other types of movies, think about Ridley Scott’s Black Rain which was released in 1989!). In The Silence of the Lambs there’s little sense of humor, a lot of atmosphere, a lot of powerful scenes, and an incredible rhythm. It must have been an incredible experience in the theaters back then! In short, if we can now enjoy movies like Se7en (1995) and The Usual Suspects (1995), we probably owe it to Jonathan Demme and his great movie! Ciao!
PS: one thing you should keep in mind while reading my review is that I haven’t read any of the novels by Thomas Harris on which the various films of this saga are based.