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Non-Review Review: The Silence of the Lambs

A modern classic. The finest portrayal of one the greatest villains ever created. Only the third film to win all of the “big five” Oscars. The first horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar. The movie which kickstarted Hollywood’s grim fascination with gory and sexually frustrated serial killers and those who hunt them. The movie which energised an ageing veteran’s career and confirmed one of Hollywood’s youngest female actors as one of its greatest stars. One of the most often referenced and quoted movies ever made.

It’s pretty good.

I bet his favourite book is To Serve Man...

I bet his favourite book is To Serve Man...

In case you can’t tell, that’d an understatement right up there. The Silence of the Lambs was the first big-league detectives-hunting-a-serial-killer psychological thriller (Michael Mann’s Manhunter was solid, but didn’t gain much attention), and it remains the best. It’s a film based on a book, but it surpasses the story’s original format in every conceivable way (I believe Red Dragon to be Thomas Harris’ strongest work). Everything the film does seems meticulous and careful, but never flashy – it values restraint in its presentation, never seeming like an epic blockbuster.

Jonathon Demme’s direction is probably the true star of the film. Demme typically films from one of two positions. He is the predator, stalking his leads through windows and forests (like in the opening sequence with Starling), like the serial killer himself, peering through doorways and down holes. He also takes great pains to keep the rest of the film at eye-level, with several characters delivering lines directly to the camera, as if being interviewed (fitting the theme of the movie). Of course, the camera is kept at the eye-level of its rather short female protagonist, reinforcing the world as seen through her eyes with its mostly dominating male presence.

Sex and gender are very much prominent themes throughout the film. Starling is typically presented as a lone female presence among men (in an elevator, at a funeral home), clearly struggling to be accepted. The film doesn’t give us too many examples of the barriers she faces (save a thoughtless intervention by her superior with local law enforcement, the sleazy advances of administrator Frederick Chilton and the awkward chat-up lines from an expert she’s consulting), instead leaving it to Lecter to articulate how uneasy she must feel being objectified by her colleagues. She is very much trying to be every bit as masculine as her male counterparts – it is her, not either of the two men with her, who cracks open the self-storage locker and she pursues a suspect into the bowels of his house without radio-ing for backup. Much as Starling wishes for her gender not to matter, the serial killer seeks to make his own matter. He hopes to literally become a woman not because being a woman is preferable to being a man, but because it would fundamentally change his identity – he would not be who he is now. Both Starling and the killer equate their own gender with their identity, but she attempts to discount its prominence, while he tries to exaggerate it.

Of course, nobody really pays too much attention to Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb, beyond remembering his creepy modus operandi. The one serial killer who remains with the audience after the film has finished is the pyschologist-turned-psychopah Hannibal Lecter. That the character has appeared no less tahn five times (three times after this played by Anthony Hopkins, once before played by Brian Cox) speaks to the grim sway he holds over our fascination. Lector is smart – far smarter than we ever could be – yet he is also insane and violent. He is a beast, but a cultured one at that. He values manners, even while gutting and devouring his victims. He never blinks. It’s little wonder that Hopkins walked away with the Oscar despite only seventeen minutes of screentime.

It’s nice to see Lecter here before he moved towards being an anti-villain (that’s just a tad less sympathetic than an anti-hero). My mother, having seen the film and its various sequels before, was shocked when Lector brutally murders some guards holding him – despite the fact that they had been completely civil to him. They died because it suited his purpose, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t take great joy in killing them. He prey would become corrupt cops and child molesters in the sequel in an attempt to make him easier to relate to, but here he’s a stone cold killer – he’s not somebody you would ever like to encounter.

The two leads (and he entire cast) do well by the material, each giving their all. I don’t believe that Anthony Hopkins or Jodie Foster have ever been better than they are here, as two foils sparring. Though both work well as characters when the plot separates them, it is the time they spend together hich gives the film its raw energy and momentum. We grow to believe that Lecter maybe even likes Starling, as impossible as that is to fathom. And Starling is interesting for her ability to fascinate the most sophisticated mind despite her plain clothes, her cliché demeanor and her faint West Virginian accent.

The movie isas solid now as it was when it was made and it remains a high career watermark for just about everybody involved. It’s also freaky as hell and terrifying – despite the restraint it shows. It’s a movie which gets so far inside your head that even my mother – who can’t remember the names of the films we watched last weekend – can tell you what’s going to happen, but still can’t look away.

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2 Responses

  1. Love this movie. Definitive classic.

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