SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss many different elements and aspects of this classic Oscar-winning film, so I encourage you to watch it before reading this review. However, it does have many chilling and potentially-frightening moments that may not be appropriate for all viewers. If you've never seen the film before, I encourage you to scroll to the bottom for a short discussion on the film's content.
"That's a good combination - intimate and off-putting."
This quote from Kasi Lemmons appears in the special features on the Criterion Collection print of the 1991 Oscar-winning classic The Silence of the Lambs. Lemmons plays Ardelia Mapp in the film, an FBI trainee who is friends with the film's protagonist - Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). I begin my review with her quote, because I think it perfectly encapsulates why The Silence of the Lambs is such a profound and beloved film.
So much has been said about this film. You have two of the most memorable performances ever put on screen - Foster as Starling and Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It was the first (and to this point, only) horror film to win Best Picture. Not only that, but it became the third film ever to win the Big Five Oscar categories - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.
But what I find most amazing about the film are some of the choices made in its production that defy conventional logic. Some of these find their origins in the source material of the same name written by Thomas Harris.
First, consider the fact that this film has two antagonists, and the "juicier" role of the two is given to the secondary antagonist rather than the main one.
Second, consider that the film is told from the perspective of a female protagonist whose goal is to save the lives of women with whom she identifies. It is a sad reality that in 1991, and unfortunately still today, this is not a common story. However, it was this very narrative thread that first drew Foster to the role, one which now defines her career. Director Jonathan Demme originally wanted Michelle Pfeiffer for the role, but he was so blown away by Foster's insistence on playing this character (coupled with the fact that Pfeiffer ended up choosing another film) that he ended up casting Foster in the iconic role.
While we're doing all this considering, think about how cerebral the film is. So much of it is about psyche, pathology and the inner workings of minds - some of which are incredibly dark and gruesome.
Demme brings these various elements together in astounding fashion. But equal credit should go to screenwriter Ted Tally. I think this film is on the short list of the greatest film adaptations of all-time. Consider how careful the two had to be in writing and making this film when there are so many concurrent storylines running at the same time.
The main plot centers on Starling - a trainee at the FBI Academy as the film begins. Intention and obstacle are the components that provide the basis for all drama. We need to learn what our characters want, then the drama comes when they must face obstacles in their journey to acheive that. We learn Starling's intention in the opening scene as she is running through an obstacle course. She will do anything to make it to the top. She has strong ambition, and the determination necessary to achieve it. This opening scene is also where we get our first taste of Howard Shore's incredible score. From the very first notes, the viewer is drawn in by the intimacy, but there is no denying a sense of foreboding and unsettling tension.
We then learn of the other plot - a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is on the loose and the FBI is trying to track him down. Buffalo Bill kidnaps young women, kills them then removes pieces of their skin. Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) is the head of the FBI's Behavorial Science Unit and he enlists Starling's help in getting information that can help them in the case. Now, Starling's path to her goal of advancing in the FBI is this case - where she must save other women. How she goes about that is yet another plot thread that will carry the movie forward.
What's interesting is that this third plot thread is the movie's most well-known. This, of course, is where Starling must go to interview Lecter - the genius former psychiatrist who is now in a maximum security prison for cannibalism. The scenes between Starling and Lecter are so incredible that, after watching the film, you think they took up more of the movie's runtime than they actually did. These scenes are incredibly intimate. Demme makes the masterful decision of having Starling and Lecter talk straight into the camera. It's like we're actually looking into their eyes having a conversation. Yet, when this happens in real life, you have control of when you want to end the eye contact. Often the person on the other side will go in and out of direct eye contact too. Here, though, the other person - whether it be Starling or Lecter - is unflinching. Few interactions are as intimate as close conversations filled with direct eye-contact. And yet what could be more off-putting than such a conversation when the other person is a serial killer?
Maybe three plot threads doesn't seem like a lot. But really think about the problem that must have presented itself during production and subsequent editing. The scenes between Starling and Lecter are so incredible that there must have been a temptation to enlarge those in the film. But those scenes are not the main story, and the film never forgets that. It weaves and flows between scenes so effortlessly, especially considering the brutal nature of some of them.
While we're on that subject, yes, this film has many gruesome and frightening elements. But, even when the camera does show us a mutilated body or Buffalo Bill's cringe-inducing basement, it doesn't linger over the gruesome. We see it, and we are given ample opportunity to grasp what it is we're seeing. But then, the camera often shifts for us to see the reactions of characters to these horrific scenes. Again, intimate but off-putting.
I've seen this film many times, but I find new things in it each time I see it. I know that kind of thing borders on cliche to say, but it's true about all great films - which certainly includes this one.
On my most recent rewatch, I was especially struck by what this film has to say about gender. Especially for its time, having a film centered on a powerful female protagonist was rare, let alone one whose goal is to save other women. I was struck by all the little battles Starling must face as she goes about the case. There's the constant eyes of the men around her. There's the eye-roll inducing flirtations of Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) that she must play along with to get to Dr. Lecter. At one point, two characters go into another room because they deem the subject matter of their conversation too much for Starling to hear. In a later conversation, Starling calls one of them out for the blatant sexism that was displayed. From the very first scene when we see Starling in the obstacle course, we know about her determination. Then she proves it by overcoming all these human obstacles as well. After watching the film, I asked my wife if she thought this was an accurate portrayal of what women face in the world. She scoffed and proceeded to tell me multiple examples of her friends and family who had faced similar experiences. That's why Clarice Starling is such an important character. She is so powerful and well-written, and as iconic as Hopkins is as Dr. Lecter, it's a shame that it is the serial killer who seems to have garnered more acclaim and fascination in the years after the film's release than the female protagonist at the heart of the story.
This theme is supported thematically by Demme and the camerawork of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. In many modern films, female characters are framed in the camera using what has become known as the "male gaze." The camera will often leer over the female character. But that doesn't happen in this film. The very first scene is a good example. Rather than stalking Starling through the fog and trees, the camera is still and focuses instead on Starling's actions as she makes her way through the obstacle course.
Then there's the more controversial part of the film that deals with gender - the character of Buffalo Bill. As the film progresses, we learn that he is attempting to create a "woman suit" from the skin of the women he kills. His goal is to become a woman. The LGBTQ community protested the film upon its release for the way his character is portrayed - wearing jewelry and women's clothes and carrying around a dog named Precious. They said that it supported a stereotype of transgender people as violent and disturbed. I've never read the book by Thomas Harris which was the source material for this film, but I've heard that the book makes it clear that Buffalo Bill is not transgender, nor is he even homosexual. The creators of the film have said that they regret that some of that backstory did not make it into the film in a more overt fashion. There's simply no way you can adapt a novel word-for-word onto film.
Having said that, there is a line from Dr. Lecter in the film that suggests that Buffalo Bill's tendencies come from somewhere else. It's not that he is gay or that he wants to become a woman for purely sexual reasons. He hates his own identity - his nature - so much that he wants to be reborn as something entirely different than himself.
Which brings up another point about this film - it is often focused on nature. Whether animals (the title which stems from one of Starling's dreams, Buffalo Bill's moths, the dog Precious) or the natural settings in a few of the scenes, we see recurring themes throughout the film. Along with that, we're directed to consider the nature of the characters in the film. Who are they? How did they become who they are? What are their intentions and deeper needs that need to be fulfilled? Those questions are particularly difficult to answer when considering Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill.
Speaking of them, our relationship as viewers with them as antagonists is another reason why this film is so great. I'm not sure quite how to describe it, but with both antagonists, there are points where you feel - if not, empathy - some kind of acknowledgment. Dr. Lecter is written and performed as this incredibly intelligent man. Intelligence is a character trait we automatically associate as being good. So for the remainder of the film, we have to try to balance out what we see from Lecter with the disturbing things we know about him.
It's somewhat different with Buffalo Bill. We don't see Dr. Lecter's crimes on screen until later in the film. But we meet Buffalo Bill in the midst of one of his. For him, we know he is a tortured soul. His identity is completely mangled, and we feel a sadness for what must have happened to him to bring him here. Even Dr. Lecter acknowledges that Buffalo Bill was not born this way. But what we see from him is brutal and unquestionably evil.
Again, intimate but extremely off-putting.
I was first attracted to this film as I'm sure many have been - by the legendary performances of Foster and Hopkins. But the more you watch this film, the more you realize that it is Foster's film. She, as Starling, is the heart of it all. In fact, the entire film is basically told from her perspective. The only time that changes is at the very end when the lights go out in Buffalo Bill's basement. In a beautiful directorial choice by Demme, the tension increases when we see things from Buffalo Bill's perspective after inhabiting Starling's view for most of the film. But in that moment, she is literally in the dark. And that, my friends, is one of the many reasons Demme was awarded Best Director that year.
The film's title comes from recurring dreams that Starling has about her childhood. Dr. Lecter finally draws these personal details out of her in their meetings. We learn that Starling grew up on a farm and woke up in the middle of the night to what sounded like screaming. It was lambs being slaughtered. She tried to save one of the lambs by running away with it. But she couldn't save it. Now her dreams are stalked by the screaming of the lambs.
Starling cares for the innocent. She is an incredibly loving and tender character, yet at the same time so strong of mind and will. She sees herself in these women and she has to save them from their brutal fate at the hands of Buffalo Bill. All of this is revealed in her interactions with Dr. Lecter, but it is underlined by her actions throughout the film.
As you can tell from this rather lengthy review, I have many reasons to love this film. This is far more than a horror film. It's more, even, than its legendary performances. It is unique in its greatness for its ability to intertwine many various threads, including some that are horrific nearly to the point of being sickening. But the film never goes across that line. It toys with it, like Dr. Lecter does with his weaponized vocabulary.
But amid all the greatness, it is Foster's performance as Starling that I always come back to. Without her, this film is nothing. She's the heart and soul of it all. In fact, that is exactly why Demme named the production company for this film Strong Heart. He saw that in Foster, and countless movie fans have seen it ever since the film's release.
While she is the film's foundation, it builds so much from that. This is a film that heartily rewards repeat viewings, as there is simply too much to grasp on one viewing alone. It is clearly one of the great motion pictures ever made, and it will surely be captivating audiences for many years to come.
Note on content: There's no reason to sugarcoat things, this film is frightening at times. It deals with serial killers, and the remains of women who have been brutally murdered are shown at various times. There are also scenes that are frightening in a psychological sense. There is profanity throughout the film. As far as sexual content, another patient in the mental institution where Dr. Lecter is incarcerated masturbates and throws his semen at Starling. There are also discussions of sexual terms in association with the murders at multiple points. Buffalo Bill wants to become a woman by creating his own woman suit, and one scene famously shows him dancing nude with his genitals pulled back between his legs. The nudity here is brief and is more unsettling than offensive. But it is quite unsettling. Again, much of the film is unsettling, but that is part of its power. Still, it is surely not a film for young audiences.