Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Director: Jonathan Demme

Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald

One of the themes of this movie is “the things we covet.” Everybody covets something or someone. We desire that which we cannot have, or cannot become. All of the characters in this tale clearly define what it is they want most. Because it succeeds on every possible level, because of how early on that we are actively invested in the story, and because of the unique mental chess match between its two leads, “The Silence of the Lambs” is a movie that should be desired by any film aficionado to add to their collection. It is an epic crime drama, a truly horrific depiction of violence, a masterful display of acting talent and, on top of it all, a compelling love story.

This is the second film adaptation from Thomas Harris’s series of novels centered around the character of Hannibal Lecter, but the first with Anthony Hopkins in the role. Gone are the all-white interiors of “Manhunter” and, from a visual standpoint, this is a welcome change. In the case of the prison cells, these clean and sterile occupancies are replaced by dark, depressing and dirty cells, much more like what I would picture. Gone also is the character of Will Graham, now back in retirement. In his place is FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn, taking over for Dennis Farina) has given Clarice a special assignment: He needs information on the serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill,” and Jack believes that Hannibal Lecter, the former psychiatrist-turned-serial killer, might have some insight.

Dr. Lecter’s desires are complex. He wants very much to be free of his cage, but the prospects for this are highly unlikely. At the very least, he would prefer to be under the supervision of someone other than Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), whom Lecter has come to loathe. His introduction to Clarice has given him something new. With Will Graham, Dr. Lecter had an antagonistic working relationship. Will was easy to provoke and repulse, but Clarice intrigues Lecter. Clarice is not as easily frightened (or she’s better at masking it), and although she sometimes resorts to deceptive tactics, she is also very frank in their conversations. Clarice never for a second forgets that a monster resides in that cell, but there is always respect. Because he has no window, Dr. Lecter draws portraits using his memory of places and people he has seen. One such likeness of Clarice suggests something much more, that Dr. Lecter has become attracted to Clarice. This is further implicated by how deeply personal his questions become concerning her past. Other men in the movie undress her with their eyes, but only Lecter would long for the impossible: to romance Agent Starling. The movie’s plot may seem to be about solving a string of murders and rescuing a potential victim but, really, it is all about the relationship between Clarice and Hannibal.

In addition to the Best Picture Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs,” both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins were recognized with acting awards for their work. It was the second for Foster, who had previously won for her role as a trailer trash rape victim who, in fighting to get her attackers convicted, faced a prejudicial system in 1988’s “The Accused.” Here, she is at her all-time best. For me, the two of them earned their Oscars with their very first scene together. Hopkins’ Lecter is instantly bone-chilling because, out of all the maximum security prisoners, he’s the only one who doesn’t present himself as someone dangerous. Instead, his every word comes out sounding rather charming, which is how he was able to ensnare so many of his victims. Even when he talks about what he did to the census taker who tried to test him, his calm delivery makes what he has to say all the more disturbing. Clarice and Dr. Lecter have one more meeting left, but there is a piece missing (and not because our favorite cannibal ate it). As a fan of “The Silence of the Lambs,” if there is one thing I can say that I desire but will never get is another pairing of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins as these characters.

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