An FBI agent-in-training is tasked with enlisting a jailed serial killer to catch one on the hunt.
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and Ted Levine
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
The villains of this film have remained the most memorable, and there’s good reason for it. Something Harris has always returned to is the performative aspect of serial killers, and Buffalo Bill is a performer. Ted Levine is so chillingly watchable in the role, a great actor portraying a bad one. Lecter describes Bill as someone who hates himself and wants to become the furthest thing from his nature, and that kind of insecurity and falseness is on display in each of Bill’s too-few scenes. He affects being the lord of the manor with Catherine in the dungeon but quickly turns into a vulgar bully. When filming himself during his grand, wing-spreading, Goodbye Horses dance, he has to ungracefully tuck his genitals for the full effect, but he does it on camera. Does he edit that out, or is he too blinkered to even care? The post-Silence of the Lambs Levine is barely recognizable, something that was probably a good career choice if he didn’t want to get stuck playing creeps and predators the rest of his life.
As good as Levine is, Hopkins is what’s most persisted from Silence of the Lambs. I’ve seen this film several times, and I still gasped at his introduction, standing stark still and staring as Starling comes into his view. He’s a raptor waiting for his prey in that moment, and he maintains that focus and intensity for the duration of the film. He’s not my favorite version of Lecter, but that’s less Hopkins’ fault than the superior vision of future Lecter adaptations. Silence of the Lambs might have kicked off the serial-killers-as-superhuman trope, in direct contrast to Bryan Cox in Manhunter, who portrayed Lecter as an intelligent but otherwise average individual. Hopkins is going for otherworldly, but Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelson would eventually get the mixture exactly right. The Lecter of Silence of the Lambs is still human, per his occasional petulance and erupting temper, while the Lecter of the TV series is essentially the ever-calm devil. If one is going to make a character monstrous, lean all the way into it. Even if Hopkins is in a tie for second-best Lecter (put your hand down, Gaspard Ulliel), all the choices he makes here work exceptionally well. The unblinking stare he uses to verbally eviscerate an adversary is as piercing as the cruel words coming out of his mouth, and the forceful exhales he takes when beating the guard to death are practically orgasmic. We’re not going to engage in category fraud for the Mediocrities, as Lecter is obviously a supporting actor, but it’s easy to see why he was put forward for Best Actor. His influence weighs heavily over a film studded with memorable performances.
Lecter and Levine are the flashier aspect of Silence of the Lambs, but Jodie Foster has to hold down the many scenes that neither of them are in. This period, between The Accused and Contact, marked the artistic peak of a career that was preceded and followed by decades of work. If she’s not quite as big as Levine or Hopkins, she’s no less effective in her role. Through the lens of this trio’s theme and the increased focus that sexual harassment has taken on in the last year, Silence of the Lambs is well ahead of its time. At the FBI training grounds where we first meet her, she’s dwarfed in the elevator by red-shirted male recruits. Chilton hits on her and propositions her in their first meeting, to say nothing of the indignities that Multiple Miggs inflicts on her (if he doesn’t fling that jism, does the movie effectively end?) Lecter intimates that Jack Crawford only selected her because she’s a titillating lure for Lecter or because Crawford’s attracted to her. Either options devalues her talents in favor of her appearance. At the funeral for one of Bill’s victims, an all-male gaggle of cops stares daggers at her, and as Lecter later tells her, we covet what we see. Underestimated and undervalued by everyone around her, Foster’s Starling keeps proving them wrong with her competence and a confidence that gets shored up as the film goes along.
I went into Silence of the Lambs sure that I wouldn’t be able to poke any holes, but alas, some scenes don’t measure up to the considerable amount of greatness on display. The urgency with which Lecter calls Starling back after Miggs assaults her has always bothered me, and continues to do so. The chaos should come from her panic and disgust, but it instead comes from the score and Lecter who’s yelling in a way I don’t think any incarnation of him has ever otherwise yelled, or even raised his voice. It’s a choice on Demme’s part that takes away from her perception of the scene. I also forgot how much this film’s plot relies on anagrams, a plot device so corny that it only exists in movies. Lecter hanging the disemboweled guard from his cage’s rafters is the full embrace of the aforementioned serial-killers-as-superhuman trope, a trope that is slow-played here instead of tightly embraced in the TV show. Lastly, the scene of the Senator making a televised plea to Bill as the assembled trainees give running, hacky commentary on it is simply a bad scene in a film otherwise containing several great ones.
Those great scenes, and the actors participating in them, and the director in charge of the whole affair, make Silence of the Lambs into the iconic work that it is, even if it is a little more imperfect than I remembered it to be. I remember feeling robbed when I saw the unedited version that did not contain the scene of Lecter ripping off that cop’s face. That kind of cresting horror, coming at the end of an incredible sequence in the courthouse, is still breathtaking. This remains a great film, even somewhat contemporary in spite of its over-the-top extremity. I’m sure there’s a Clarice Starling equivalent walking into a room in Silicon Valley right now, feeling eyes on her, being coveted. Hopefully, she never barges into a room to find a decomposing elderly woman in a tub. A-