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Friday, February 27, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 6: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991; Orion Pictures)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Ted Nally adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine

I gave a nod to one of Demme’s other great 90’s classics Philadelphia previously on this list.  While Philadelphia was an excellent film with a career-changing performance for its star Tom Hanks, it did lack one thing, a really good villain.  For that matter....  Why don’t we just have two?!

The Silence of the Lambs is the story of a young FBI academy member named Clarice Starling who finds herself entangled in an investigation into the disappearance of a girl.  Believed to be the work of a serial killer who calls himself “Buffalo Bill”, the very desperate federal agency forces the nervous yet bright young Starling to interview yet another, far worse, killer: the cannibalistic psychopath Hannibal Lecter.  The hope of which being she would be able to appeal to him for a profile to aid in the apprehension of Bill, and the rescue of the missing girl.  

In hindsight it’s easy to miss, but The Silence of the Lambs was a very important demarcation point in procedural filmmaking.  Most commonly, the perspectives in these sorts of movies were fixed.  We would see events from one character, or at least from one side of an investigation.  This is in the vein of the classics of Agatha Christie, who crafted her tales in such a way to keep the reader guessing and involved in the mystery.  The Silence of the Lambs takes things in a different direction.  Instead of being trapped on one side of the struggle, or even being a fly on the wall, the story is told from a rather omnipotent perspective.  We see Clarice being called in to work on the case, we see the creepy and famous scene of her walking to the end of the "dungeon" to find an unsettling image of Lecter waiting stiffly for her arrival, but then we see a girl trapped in a well, we see an insane man dressing in drag and dancing almost comically in front of a mirror, and we even get some perspective from Bill’s dog!  The goal here is to craft a story from all of the facts simultaneously, dropping them all in at once, and all the audience can do is hope and wait.  It answers the question of whether or not you would WANT to know what happened, even if everything did not turn out alright.  

This is a film built entirely on the performance of Hopkins as Lecter.  Aside from the standard serial killer plot that wraps the film, this character is the image and identity of this movie.  Even those who have never seen Silence of the Lambs, any of the other Hannibal Lecter movies (not recommended) or the recent TV show, likely knew who Lecter was by reputation.  He has become the standard by which movie villain performances are measured, and for good reason.  Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance sold this movie.  The plot is actually quite ludacris, Buffalo Bill is insane in a rather comical way and much of the cinematography is flat, except for a few notable scenes.  No.  This is about Lecter.  Hopkins’ performance is so good in this movie, that not only is he the lynchpin here, but his portrayal of the mad doctor makes it nearly impossible to really enjoy any other cracks at the character from other performers, and for me this includes Mads Mikkelsen, who is good, but nowhere near this good. 

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