Silence of the Lambs is a hybrid of a thriller, a horror film, and a detective story, and it's based on the best-selling book by Thomas Harris. The film tells the story of an FBI trainee trying to track down a serial killer. Like a Hitchcock movie, most of the fear is created through the use of suspense.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, and The Prince of Tides. In addition to Best Picture, Silence of the Lambs also won Best Actor in a Leading Role (Hopkins), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Foster), Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ted Tally).
Clarice Starling (Foster) is a talented FBI trainee who has focused her studies on psychology and aspires to one day work in the behavioral branch of the agency. She is recruited by her mentor, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), to help with a project designed to provide more insight into serial killers. With some cautionary words and a questionnaire, he sends her to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a.k.a. Hannibal the Cannibal, a psychologist turned serial killer. In actuality, her mentor hopes that the young trainee will manage to connect with the suave yet depraved killer, in order to wrangle insight that might help with the investigation of another serial killer, known as Buffalo Bill. Bill has killed at least five women, partially skinning them and leaving their bodies in a river.
Thus begins the cat-and-mouse game at the center of this movie. For while Clarice and the FBI pursue Buffalo Bill, Lecter plays emotional games with Clarice. He takes enormous pleasure in the control he wields over the situation, doling out insights and clues in return for Clarice revealing personal information about herself.
Considering they are separated by either Plexiglas or bars each time they speak, Lecter remains an intimidating presence. Scenes with him are perhaps more terrifying than even those of Buffalo Bill, as he kidnaps and imprisons another victim.
A word of warning: while most of the violence takes place off camera, there is still enough disturbing graphic imagery that those with weak stomachs (like me, in my 31st week of pregnancy), should proceed with caution.
Demme surprised many people by his success with this movie and completely shattered all preconceptions about his work. Before The Silence of the Lambs, he had been known for lighter fare, such as Married to the Mob. Few believed he could pull off such a dark film. In the behind-the-scenes documentaries included with the DVD, Foster said that, in many ways, this made him the perfect choice. As someone who is morally opposed to violence and who has a deep understanding of the brighter side of human nature, he was determined to make a film that would only be violent where necessary.
Foster was attracted to the film for its feminist elements. Not only did it feature a female protagonist, clearing the way for such roles to become commonplace, but it also included a victim (Catherine Martin, played by Brooke Smith) who had some gumption and made efforts to fought back.
Much to the filmmakers' dismay, the film came under fire for its portrayal of Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who wants to sew together a suit from his victims' skin and therefore turn himself into a woman. While many saw him as a negative gay stereotype, the filmmakers insisted that the film makes clear he is a twisted aberration, a product of systematic abuse more than sexuality issues. Still, scenes of him carrying around a small white dog called Precious and dancing around to music while putting on makeup, gave activists reason to complain. Nowadays, both Demme and the producers say they wish they had toned down his portrayal. The actor who played Bill, Ted Levine, said he was just as surprised by the backlash and regretted any negative impact he might have had.
Unlike the book, the movie did not have time to fill the viewers in on Bill's back story so they could understand his motivations. Perhaps a fuller portrayal of his psychosis might have helped, the filmmakers now acknowledge.
Some of the film was shot on location in areas around Pittsburgh, while other scenes were sets specifically created for the movie in a large warehouse.
While Levine and Smith became good friends during the shooting, Foster and Hopkins remained separated from each other on set. Many of their scenes were shot in closeup, meaning they weren't always on the set at the same time. When they were both present, they were separated by Plexiglas or bars. It probably didn't help that Hopkins had a habit of remaining in character on the set! They did, however, develop a mutual admiration and connected on a more personal level once the shoot ended.
Interestingly, Foster was not the first choice for the role, and Demme was not the first choice for director. The film rights were originally optioned by Gene Hackman, in conjunction with a production company. His goal was not only to produce the film but to direct it and star as Lecter. Hackman brought screenwriter Tally onboard, but he decided after seeing an early draft that it was too violent for him and backed away from the project. The production company bought out his share.
After Demme was tapped as director, he sought his original choice for Clarice, Michelle Pfeiffer, with whom he had just worked. She turned down the role for similar reasons to Hackman's. Meanwhile, Foster had read the book and been impressed. When she found out a screen version was being filmed, she actively campaigned for the role. Demme says that the day they met in person, he saw her striding toward her with a determined gait and said to himself, "That's Clarice."
The stellar acting separates this film from many thrillers, and especially from most horror films. The Silence of the Lambs remains the only horror movie to receive the Best Picture Oscar, and it was the first thriller to win the honor since the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie Laura.
Watching this film again, I can appreciate the care taken by Demme to create something more than just a scary film. Rather, it explores character motivations, makes a visual impact through camera angles and scenery, and engages in novel approaches to storytelling, allowing the viewer to reach certain conclusions without the help of exposition.
Succinctly put, this film is so good it's scary.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
Real-life monsters can be the scariest of all.