The Silence of the Lambs (review)

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Thinking Woman’s Action Movie

The Silence of the Lambs is a psychological thriller of the highest order, and well deserving of the unusual Oscar nod for Best Picture, never before bestowed upon a film like this. Before or since, action/horror has never been done so well or so cerebrally.

The film belongs to Jodie Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as serial killer Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Both are riveting onscreen, he the embodiment of cool, calm, confident evil, and she personifying drive and intelligence as well as fear and the bravery to overcome it — and their sparring is the stuff legendary films are made of.

Lecter, an insane psychiatrist imprisoned for years under ultramaximum security, is “a monster… so rare to capture one alive,” says Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), head of the asylum where Lecter is held. Rules for dealing with him abound, from not passing him anything other than soft paper (no metal objects, please) to not telling him anything personal lest he get inside your head. But deal with him Clarice must, as she is sent under false pretenses by her “guru,” Special Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), to enlist Lecter’s help in finding a serial killer called Buffalo Bill before he kills again.

Clarice, a woman doing a “man’s job,” is almost as much an anomaly as Lecter. (One moment early in the film illustrates her position perfectly, as she gets into an elevator at the academy, one tiny woman surrounded by huge guys towering over her and glancing down at her, amused by her presence.) Chilton’s first thought is to hit on her; Crawford uses her, embarrasses her if it’s convenient for him, and excludes her from FBI business she should be in on. When he acts dismissive of her in front of a bunch of small-town police and apologizes later in private, saying it doesn’t matter, she calls him on it. “It matters, sir. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.” Foster is brilliant as a woman perhaps overcompensating for being poor, a “rube,” and female. Like most women, she has to do twice the work twice as well to get half the recognition.

On top of the excellent performances, a clever, nonstop plot and devious touches from director Jonathan Demme — like a cameo by Roger Corman, acknowledging the film’s B-movie roots, and atmosphere like the copy of Bon Appétit in Lecter’s cell — make The Silence of the Lambs one of my favorite films.

Oscars Best Picture 1991
AFI 100 (1998 list): #65

unforgettable movie moment:
“It rubs the lotion on its skin,” says “Bill,” standing at the rim of the pit in his dank, dark basement, talking to his latest victim down at the bottom. She looks up to see on the pit’s rough walls the broken-off fingernails and blood of Bill’s previous “guest,” who’d tried to claw her way out.

previous Best Picture:
1990: Dances with Wolves
next Best Picture:
1992: Unforgiven

previous AFI 100 film:
64: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
next AFI 100 film:
66: Network

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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