Films / Horror / Thriller

The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the few movies to sweep the ‘big’ Oscars, winning Best Director, Actor, Actress, Writing and Best Picture. Whilst it’s not surprising that the Academy lavished such praise upon the movie – it’s an incredibly well drawn and brilliantly constructed film – what is surprising is that they chose to honour a horror movie to such a degree. The horror and thriller genres are generally ignored by the Oscars, and prior to Lambs, the only Best Picture nomination for this category had been The Exorcist, way back in 1973. On this note, it’s interesting to look back at The Silence of the Lambs to discover just why it works as well as it does.jodie fosterThe movie follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who is sent by the head of Behavioural Sciences Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to interview the incarcerated ex-psychiatrist cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The two hit it off surprisingly well, and Starling begins working with Lecter to help catch fellow serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a man currently removing women’s skins. As Bill finds and kidnaps his latest victim, a Senator’s daughter called Catherine (Brooke Smith), Starling is left with a three-day time limit to work with Lecter and solve the case, catching Bill before he kills again.hannibalThe Silence of the Lambs benefits from a fantastic story. This is an intelligent and well-designed plot, keeping the audience on edge throughout without ever ignoring their intelligence, and the movie stands as a thriller genre highpoint simply on narrative terms. This comes directly from Thomas Harris’s novel, and the movie, like No Country for Old Men, remains one of the greatest book-to-screen adaptations ever put together. Harris’s novel is refreshingly unpretentious – it’s a tense, detailed thriller and designed with page-turning in mind – and the movie doesn’t attempt to elevate the material, instead choosing to revel in the book. The more ridiculous elements of the plot – the escape, the cannibalism – are kept intact, and played straight, and we’re allowed a perfect window into Harris’s work. This is dark, tormenting story, delving into the darker and more unpleasant elements of humanity, wonderfully written and well paced, with a clear three-act structure held together by the ticking threat of Catherine’s demise. The audience is on edge throughout. silence3Demme respects the material, refusing to let the movie fall into oh-so-easy camp, not treating his film as high art as such, but focusing on constructing the perfect serial killer thriller. His direction is almost unnoticeable but that’s because it’s so confident, and he allows his actors and the plot’s natural qualities to carry him through. That’s not to say the directing is at all secondary, and Demme manages to construct some incredibly tense and unsettling scenes, many of which work on Hitchcock’s ‘show the audience, not the characters’ policy, the best example of this being the iconic, pitch-black climax. Demme avoids camp but allows humour – ending the movie on a joke, the film often works with the blackest black comedy and this helps to alleviate the horrors on screen. Academics have over the years found much to say in Lambs – especially focusing on how the female protagonist aligns with a monster to save women from another one – and whilst that subtext is there, it’s not Demme’s focus at all. His drive is on constructing the perfect thriller, and like the novel, the movie is refreshing free from pretentiousness. Howard Shore’s score is wonderful, sounding like a funeral march throughout, and the sound design on the whole is stunning – most noticeable in the audible, sad final gasp as a cocoon is removed from a corpse’s mouth. The editing of Lambs in particular is incredible, with the standout being the SWAT-team fake out near the end, which remains one of cinema’s greatest ‘psyche’ moments. Cinematography leans on the gothic – Lecter’s cell, Bill’s house – and it’s interesting how Starling must descend via stairs to reach these haunting layers, as though literally walking down into hell. However in the safety of the FBI scenes, the film looks timeless – this is a movie which could exist in any decade, and that helps it remain relevant today.silence10The film of course receives the most credit for creating two of cinema’s best characters. It’s Anthony Hopkins who gathers the most attention, impressive when he’s actually only in the film for about 16 minutes. Lecter is a wonderfully dark and frightening beast – the audience hear of Lecter and his ways before meeting him, building a picture in their mind, which is wonderfully subverted by Hopkin’s first appearance, standing bolt up right in his cell, waiting. His voice is metallic, inspired by HAL-9000, and he possess an eerie knowledge of others, coming across as intensely powerful just through powers of persuasion. It’s clear that Hopkins is having a huge amount of fun in the role, and revels in the elements of performance and theatricality that Lecter provides. For his monstrous nature however, we like Hannibal Lecter – the character works on dark humour and can be quite funny, as well as being the smartest character in the movie – and it’s crucial that we don’t feel that he’ll harm Starling, the heart and centre of the film. It’s the relationship between the two which makes him so endearing. Hopkins does a lot with very little screentime and whilst he still garners praise for the role, he’s a side-piece to the narrative, as Clarice Starling is the real focus and drive of The Silence of the Lambs.silence of the lambsClarice Starling is one of cinema’s greatest protagonists – she’s smart, confident on the surface, and extremely likeable. It’s easy to see why she and Lecter bond; like Lecter, she is trapped by society, but whilst he stands in a literal cage, she remains barred by the men around her. As a young, female FBI agent, men struggle to take her seriously, and Demme stresses her isolation throughout the movie, with only Lecter and the wise Jack Crawford (a stand in for her missing father figure) respecting her talents. The moment where she clears a group of Southern policemen from a room is brave, and very telling. And on top of her sex, there’s also Starling’s Southern heritage which holds her back. It’s clear that Starling has worked hard to get where she is and will stop at nothing, desperate to eradicate the country-girl history which haunts her. Lecter taunts her for this when he meets her, and notice how when commenting on a girl’s outsider nail polish, she uses the word ‘town’ – that’s a country term, and no-one actually from town would use it in that context. She’s resilient and strong but not a god and her motivation (the lambs of the title) is fascinating and fitting. f course non of this would work without Jodie Foster. Foster has always been one of the world’s strongest actresses (see Taxi Driver) but this is her greatest achievement. She balances the conflicting elements of Starling’s personality – her drive, her fear, her confidence and her history – with airtight precision and feels like an utterly real, fully formed human being. The highlights of her performance are the face she pulls after Lecter first insults her (try and imagine any other actress pulling off that look of hurt and fight) and of course, her lambs monologue, which is haunting and completely captivating. Her and Hopkins have wonderful chemistry and whilst critics have noted a possible romantic tie (Lecter himself acknowledges this) their relationship comes from a sense of mutual respect and understanding; it’s refreshingly free of sex. The movie works primarily because of Starling – this is her journey (Lecter noticeably drops out after the second Act) and we want to see her succeed.silence4The rest of the cast are wonderful, with special mention to Ted Levine’s absolutely terrifying Buffalo Bill. Levine doesn’t get enough credit for this performance – it’s one of the scariest and most uncomfortable in cinema, and unlike Lecter, Levine doesn’t add black humour, which makes the character all the more terrifying. Despite that, Bill isn’t a monster, and even though he murders and skins women, we can see what makes him tick, which makes him more believable. Harris drew from various actual serial killers to create the character and this sense of realism is very frightening. Scott Glenn is a calming force at the centre of the movie, and Brooke Smith generates a real feeling of hopeless terror and isolation as the trapped Catherine Martin. The supporting cast are all on top form too.silence6It’s a shame that a few years after Lambs the studio realised the money-drawing pull of Hannibal Lecter and decided to spring up a franchise around him. The first of such films, Hannibal, is beautifully directed by Ridley Scott but frankly suffers from it’s terrible plot. This isn’t so much the screenplays fault – Harris’s Hannibal is a reader-hating novel, and it’s difficult to see where he was going with it. There’s challenging your audience and then completely alienating them. The film did better by altering Harris’s insane, franchise murdering ending (for those who haven’t read it, Clarice and Hannibal fall in love and become killers together), but it’s a weak effort on the whole, and the lack of Foster, despite the use of the fantastic Julianne Moore, doesn’t help at all. Further prequels appeared afterwards – Red Dragon, which had already been adapted as the exploitative and dated Manhunter, and suffered from coming across as Lambs-lite with too much Lecter. With Hannibal Rising, the series fell off the edge into slasher movie nonsense, and again unfortunately, the blame seems to lie with Harris, who with the studio has realised that Lecter is a very milkable cow -it’s telling that the book and movie came out at virtually the same time. Too much Lecter takes away from the character, and Harris has sadly turned one of the most frightening of cinema’s boogie men into something common place. As such, and like movies such as Psycho and Halloween, it’s best to treat The Silence of the Lambs as a one off, without worrying about what happened before or after.silence9The Silence of the Lambs is a timeless and powerful movie, one of the best horror thrillers of all time, with confident directing and a wonderful cast playing wonderful characters. It’s no wonder that the Academy lavished the praise upon it that they did. It’s a must see.


7 thoughts on “The Silence of the Lambs

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