Bucket List Movie #463: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Welcome to another Horror-tober edition of Bucket List Movies, and today I take a look at one of the most refreshingly grown-up horror movies ever made, 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.
Yup, once again it's one of those movies everyone else has seen, while I took my sweet time. As a kid, I was bitter that this won the Best Picture Oscar over one of my all-time favorite movies, Beauty and the Beast. As I've gotten older, I've realized how pointless Oscar-bitterness is, and after finally seeing The Silence of the Lambs, do I now think it deserved to win?
A grudging yes.
Still, you're always going to wish your favorite had won, it's just how it is. However, The Silence of the Lambs won me over by how suspenseful, twisty, and deeply disturbing it was nearly a quarter of a century after its release. It is aided in no small part by the sophisticated direction by Jonathan Demme, and the strengths of its lead actors, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.
The Silence of the Lambs made a bona fide star out of Hopkins, who'd been making movies since 1967, and, at that point, had some none-too-shabby entries on his resume (The Lion in Winter, The Elephant Man). He was definitely a darling of the critics, but he had yet to enjoy a worldwide hold on audiences. All that changed when he accepted the role of Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, and finally got his dues as a great actor. Winning the Best Actor Academy Award and becoming higher in demand than he ever could have hoped, Hopkins's rise to fame is almost a Cinderella story. You know the old saying that it takes ten years to be an overnight success? Try 24 years.
It's also rather astonishing how the character of Hannibal Lecter has entered the public consciousness. This wasn't even the first time he appeared on film; his first appearance was 5 years earlier in Michael Mann's Manhunter, and he was played not by Hopkins, but by Brian Cox. Manhunter is very well-regarded, but any thunder it once had has been duly stolen by The Silence of the Lambs. Since then, Hopkins has twice reprised the role (2001's Hannibal, 2002's Red Dragon, a remake of Manhunter), and the torch has been passed to younger actors, both in 2006's ill-advised Hannibal Rising, and the current hit NBC TV show, Hannibal. Mention the name "Hannibal" nowadays, no one will think of the military commander who lived before Christ and crossed the Alps with elephants. They will think of Hannibal Lecter.
Now that I've gotten the obligatory rambling about Anthony Hopkins and Hannibal Lecter out of the way, let's talk plot.
Rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Foster), is sent to interview incarcerated former shrink Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) in order to gauge information about a deranged serial killer named Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), also known as "Buffalo Bill", who was once patient of Lecter's. Gumb has abducted five women in the recent past, skinning them and shoving moth cocoons down their throats before killing them. Starling ably hides her nerves and uncertainty and attempts to talk to Lecter, who is imprisoned in a glass cell and possesses an unsettling combination of eerie calm and a mind like a scalpel. Though Lecter ostensibly drives Clarice away, she is now part of the investigation and boldly goes to him again, her tenacity winning his… respect? Admiration? Whatever it is, she's won it, and Lecter, in his own twisted way, aids in the search for Buffalo Bill by giving obtuse clues. But Buffalo Bill has abducted another woman, and it will take all of Clarice's courage, smarts, and determination (and Lecter's warped form of help) to track her down before she becomes another sick casualty.
The plot is simple, but nonetheless gripping and terrifying. Buffalo Bill is one of the most disgusting villains I've ever encountered in a horror movie, a sleazy psychopath who was partly inspired by Ted Bundy and Ed Gein. There has been some backlash against the character, since he is transgendered, and LGBT groups have accused The Silence of the Lambs of encouraging fear of transsexuals. Not an unreasonable argument, but I don't think fear mongering was Thomas Harris's agenda. Rather, Buffalo Bill's condition was a means to end in terms of what happens to his victims. He doesn't represent transgendered people as a whole by any stretch of the imagination, and I don't believe Harris intended him to be.
I do have one huge, personal complaint about The Silence of the Lambs, and that is how Clarice Starling tends to get overlooked as a character. She is the real protagonist of this story (for the record, Hannibal Lecter's total screen time doesn't even come to half an hour), and she is a frustrating reminder of how screenwriters really need to step up when it comes to writing women. Clarice is a revelation: a woman on the side of good who is interesting and the love interest of no one (I will ignore all the Clarice/Hannibal 'shippers, thanks). Clarice is passionate about her work, but her passion comes from a dark, troubled place. She has overcome her lonely, disadvantaged upbringing, but still struggles to be taken seriously not only as a woman, but one from rural West Virginia (even Lecter comments on her accent). She is great at her job, but the movie doesn't let us forget that she's still a novice, she still makes mistakes, and she isn't always completely prepared, but she has the goods to be one of the FBI's best and brightest. She's not a badass on the top of her game… yet. Even more remarkable, Clarice is never, not even for a second, sexualized, always modestly and professionally dressed (she doesn't even wear anything sleeveless). Why can't we have more heroines who feel the fear, but do their work, anyway? Why do so many female characters, even today, have to be relegated to the Love Interest, or as just fanservice? Clarice deserves a place alongside Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor in the annals of badass movie heroines.
Jodie Foster is ideally cast as Clarice, for she has always had an old soul quality to her, even when she was a child actress. How many other 14-year-old actresses could have played an underaged prostitute with the same scary confidence as Foster in Taxi Driver? Foster's trademark womanly poise and gruff intensity bring Clarice to startling life, playing a woman who may have her share of demons, but refuses to be haunted by them.
The Silence of the Lambs is as terrifying as any standard horror film, but as intelligent as any mystery. One thing I noticed was how quickly most of the character spoke, especially Foster, and I couldn't help but appreciate this as a viewer. Most modern mainstream movies have the actors speaking in a slow, affectedly awkward, vaguely condescending way, as if we're too stupid to follow what they're saying. The Silence of the Lambs has confidence in its audience and their intellect, and they trust us to know what's going on.
So, for the record, I'll always prefer Beauty and the Beast as a film. Sorry, I can't help it. But Demme, Hopkins, and Foster all picked up statuettes for their work on The Silence of the Lambs, which is proof positive that sometimes the academy gets it right.