Sunday, January 30, 2011

Timeless And Tense, The Silence Of The Lambs Is A Great Thriller.

The Good: Acting, Tension, Pacing, DVD bonus features, Plot development
The Bad: One too many reversals, Moments where plot/character does not make real sense.
The Basics: Frightening and creepy, The Silence Of The Lambs is a consistently intense film which puts an FBI trainee in a match of wits with a serial killer!

Believe it or not, but the most I've known Jodie Foster as (until I saw The Silence Of The Lambs) was a voice talent. In all of my moviegoing experiences, I've actually never seen a movie that had Jodie Foster in it. Before this film, it was voice-over works in The X-Files and The Simpsons as well as the general pop culture knowledge of Jodie Foster which was the extent of my experience with her and her work. All that changed when my wife enthusiastically sat me down for a viewing of The Silence Of The Lambs. As a fan of The X-Files (reviewed here!) I now have to wonder if Gillian Anderson was ever considered for the role of Clarice Starling as they seem to occupy similar cinematic niches.

As for The Silence Of The Lambs, I can see why it is so very popular as it has a consistent level of tension throughout and an amazing performance by Sir Anthony Hopkins, but it is not the flawless film some sold it to me as, though it did manage to surprise me in points. As always for movies based upon books, this is a review of the 1991 film The Silence Of The Lambs and not the novel by Thomas Harris by the same name. I have not read the book, so this was actually a very pure viewing of the film.

Clarice Starling is a trainee at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia when she is called to the office of the Behavioral Sciences unit and its director, Jack Crawford. As a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill continues to kidnap and skin his victims, Crawford sends Clarice into a maximum security mental institution to interview the deranged serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a cannibalistic psychotherapist who has been in custody for eight years. Polite and charming, the utterly creepy Lecter begins to play a game with Clarice where they exchange information and Lecter actually begins to aid Clarice in the hunt for Buffalo Bill.

But when a Senator's daughter is captured by Buffalo Bill, heat is put on Crawford, who has Clarice deliver an offer to Lecter that offers the psychopath the chance at relocation. When Crawford and Clarice's betrayal is revealed, Lecter leaps on an opportunity from the Senator and the corrupt, egotistical operator of the facility, Dr. Chilton, to get turned over to the police. As the FBI moves in on Buffalo Bill, Lecter masterminds his own escape.

The Silence Of The Lambs is a thriller which is surprisingly low in gore, especially by today's standards. Still, it is remarkably tense and frightening, and the rumors about the greatness of Anthony Hopkins' performance are true. In fact, the only real problems with The Silence Of The Lambs are in the setup and how rewatchable the film is. While The Silence Of The Lambs might be wonderful to watch for the appreciation of the nuances (how many truly great movies include a scene where a man throws semen on a woman?!) the reversals must quickly get old (by the final one in the film, I was tired of them the first time) and because so much of the tension is based on surprise, when one knows what is coming next, it is hard to imagine this is terribly entertaining.

That said, the only real problem with The Silence Of The Lambs is in the suspension of disbelief needed to make the basic premise work. For sure, it is easy to believe that the FBI would employ serial killers to help with their profiling, that makes perfect sense. What doesn't work nearly as well is Crawford's use of a trainee for such an important assignment as contacting Hannibal Lecter or the continued use of her after she begins breaking the rules as to what type of contact she may have with Lecter. The movie is especially heavy-handed about the lack of respect women get in law enforcement, but then Crawford becomes more lax with Clarice about the rules, which doesn't "read" right either.

Largely what The Silence Of The Lambs is is a psychological chess match and a chase. The chess match occurs in creepy scenes where Clarice and Hannibal Lecter square off and trade information on killers and Clarice's past. Lecter constantly pushes for more information and Clarice uses key moments to redirect the psychopath to try to get closer to what she truly wants from him. The scenes play out like careful chess moves and they do enhance the overall creepy feel of the movie.

Moreover, director Jonathan Demme cleverly uses the film medium to keep the film interesting. For example, when leaving Hannibal Lecter, Clarice sees a car the same color as the sky in a memory that unsettles her and the blending of the traumas makes Clarice much more interesting. Similarly, when a new fact is revealed in the FBI investigation, its context is shown with Buffalo Bill. This is refreshing in that the movie does not suddenly overload the viewer with all of the story's revelations at once. Instead, the film plays out with a sense that it is building and while there is a lot of tension in it, The Silence Of The Lambs is not built on quick, jumpy reversals.

Instead, this is a surprisingly bleak character study of a deranged scientist - Clarice is always quite careful to call Hannibal Lecter "doctor" - and a woman running from her past through trying to stop evil in the world. Clarice is naive, but clever, and she is well-played by Jodie Foster. Foster is deliberate and intense with her eyes boring into the viewer in virtually every one of her scenes. She plays off both Anthony Heald (Chilton) and Scott (Crawford) flawlessly. Despite how obvious and sanctimonious the line is, Foster makes Clarice calling Crawford out on the example he sets in front of other law enforcement work.

But this is Anthony Hopkins' tour de force. Hopkins - far more known for quiet, dignified roles like his part in The Remains Of The Day - swaps his British accent for a Southern dialect and he is flawless. Hopkins is uniformly dark and he plays Lecter as a determined man with a coldness that is calculating and brutal. There is not a single scene that Hopkins is in where he does not draw the eye or the attention of the viewer.

On DVD, The Silence Of The Lambs comes in a two-disc Special Edition loaded with bonus features. The film has a commentary track which is informative as well as a second disc loaded with featurettes. The featurettes mostly explore the making of the film, both the psychology, the translation from the novel and the acting. They are well done and intriguing. There is also a gag reel, a series of creepy deleted scenes, and the original featurette for television of the movie. As well as photo galleries, trailers and a phone message from Anthony Hopkins, the second disc gives fans of The Silence Of The Lambs all they could hope for.

For fans of psychologically-driven horror movies, The Silence Of The Lambs has all that one could hope for. It is dark, well-acted and has a constant ramping up of the tension that makes it harrowing to watch. But make no mistake; this is both terrifying for adults and the beginning of a cinematic franchise. But what a start it is!

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, please check it out by clicking here!]

For other horror movies, please check out my reviews of:
The Blair Witch Project
Let The Right One In
The Alien Quadrilogy


For other film reviews, please visit my index page. That may be accessed by clicking here and it contains the most thorough listing of my reviews!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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