The Silence of the Lambs (1991)


“A young F.B.I. cadet must receive the help of an incarcerated and manipulative cannibal killer to help catch another serial killer, a madman who skins his victims.” — IMDb

The Silence of the Lambs, the second film adaptation of one of Thomas Harris’s novels featuring the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, is just a masterpiece. There’s no other way to describe it. It was only the third film to win Academy Awards in all of the top five categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Adapted Screenplay), the first Best Picture winner widely considered to be a horror movie (only the third even nominated), and it is considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant by the U.S. Library of Congress. It’s one of those rare films where everyone is just cast perfectly — an amazing feat considering Al Pacino was considered for the role of Lecter (yikes).

It follows young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she is asked by the head of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit (Scott Glenn) to interview an imprisoned, cannibalistic psychiatrist-turned-serial killer (Anthony Hopkins) who is believed to be linked to a killer they are currently hunting, known as “Buffalo Bill”. Starling gets closer than expected to the doctor as she does whatever it takes to catch the monster at large…


Jodie Foster’s ability to portray Starling as both vulnerable yet commanding, young and green and yet self-possessed, giving sideways glances to the many men who attempt to hold her down or hold her back while adeptly sidestepping them, is one of my favorite parts about this film. She is repeatedly shown surrounded by men — in many scenes literally dwarfed standing alongside them — and yet she doesn’t shy away. But the theme of women being used is pervasive throughout, from the blatant — Buffalo Bill torturing and ritually killing his female victims for their skin — to the more insidious — Glenn sending Starling, the young, pretty trainee, to get the information he needs from Lecter, all the while excluding her, dismissing her, casting her aside.

The cinematography, helmed by Tak Fujimoto, is intense and deliberate. Dr. Lecter is regularly shrouded in harsh shadow; the initial tour through Buffalo Bill’s home is simple and unapologetic; symbolism is used with just enough subtlety, such as when Lecter is shown reflected and almost overlaid with Starling’s face looking through the glass, or when Starling is grasping blindly through the pitch blackness of Buffalo Bill’s home and world. Even scenes whose subject matter are grisly manage to carry a degree of fascinating beauty — Lecter, eyes closed, swaying along to the music, as we see the officers he just murdered with his teeth laying behind him; thick beams of light streaming in behind a body strewn up like an angel with arms outstretched; Buffalo Bill dancing, silk robe falling off his shoulders, tiny squares of light bouncing from a spinning disco ball.

As I mentioned, the casting is spot on. There is no one I could imagine doing more justice to Lecter than Anthony Hopkins — he is chilling, calculated, vicious (“when your little girl is on the slab, where will it tickle you?”), fiercely intelligent. Jodie Foster as Starling is naïve and while not completely fearless she is determined. Their chemistry together is what really makes it — the entire scene with the story of the lambs is particularly incredible. Ted Levine as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb will make your skin crawl while almost feeling a degree of pity, and his captive in the movie — played by Brooke Smith — does a particularly gut-wrenching job.

The music (by Howard Shore) is fantastic — from the very first scene, with Starling running, drenched in sweat, through the foggy woods — it is captivating and haunting.

It just so perfectly balances the themes of intelligent psychological thriller and horror. It regards such violence and depravity with a cool casualness that is downright chilling. The dialogue is brilliant. It is brutal and unapologetic while maintaining a neatness, an insistent intention, that makes the aesthetic quality impossible to ignore. And the tension is palpable throughout — you aren’t bored for a second — but it reaches a deafening crescendo at the end, with perfect edits made to maintain the mystery and keep you on the edge of your seat. Buffalo Bill watching Clarice through night vision goggles, reaching out to almost graze his hand against her hair, has been imprinted in my memory as one of the scariest scenes ever since I first saw this movie as a kid. And let’s not forget how much we’re rooting for Lecter by the end, almost grinning as we watch him deliberately trail behind Dr. Chilton, hoping to catch up over dinner later…

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Rating: 10/10 | Director: Jonathan Demme | Writer: Thomas Harris (novel), Ted Tally (screenplay) | Music: Howard Shore | Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto | Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Anthony Heald, Scott Glenn, Kasi Lemmons


3 thoughts on “The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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