Monday, February 18, 2008

Monday Movie Review: The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 10/10
FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) interviews Dr. Hannibal Lecter—"Hannibal the Cannibal" (Anthony Hopkins)—a psychiatrist who is one of the most dangerous incarcerated serial killers. Starling's supervisor/mentor (Scott Glenn) believes that Lecter can help find another serial killer known as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) who skins his victims. Directed by Jonathan Demme.

As the final credits for The Silence of the Lambs roll, a character walks through a crowd. We are interested in watching him, but he walks away from us, off into the distance as the crane shot recedes. The credits obscure the scene, and when they briefly clear, he is gone. We cannot find him, our fear has disappeared into an ordinary, pretty street scene. The fear remains within.

Maybe everyone has already seen this movie, and there is no point in avoiding spoilers. Indeed, the movie is excellent, and watchable, and terrifying, even when thoroughly and completely spoiled. Yet out of respect for its genius, I think I'll leave its mysteries intact.

Only three movies in history have swept the Oscars' four major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Actor. In 1934 it was It Happened One Night, in 1975 it was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and in 1991 it was Silence of the Lambs. (All three also won Best Adapated Screenplay.) As it happens, I adore It Happened One Night and Cuckoo's Nest. I'd seen Silence of the Lambs once before, but it was censored and cut up, and it hadn't impressed me. I was determined to give it another go, and TCM's recent uncut showing gave me the opportunity. So here I am, reviewing a movie everyone's already seen. Go know.

People say "they don't make 'em like that anymore" with alarming disregard to what is and is not being made nowadays, or what was made in the past. Yet in regard to Silence of the Lambs, I have to say it's probably true. They stopped making horror movies that scared by making you imagine, and not see, shortly after Psycho. Silence of the Lambs is about what we don't see. It is the taut, tightly constrained body of Hannibal Lecter, who is sometimes straight-jacketed and muzzled, but always looks like he is even when his limbs are free. It is the expressive stare of Clarice Starling, who flinches even while not allowing herself to flinch. It is the derangement of Buffalo Bill, whom we barely ever see clearly at all; he is almost always in the side of a shot, or bent over so his face is obscured, or seen in so tight a close-up that his features are distorted, so that the one clear shot of him, bizarre, vulgar, intimately revealing, is actually more shocking, than the autopsy or the head in a jar.

The filming is deceptive in its apparent straightforwardness. Opening at the Quantico, Virginia FBI training facility, it has the grainy look of a made-for-TV movie. But look again. Starling works her ass off on the training course, and then diverges, leaving it incomplete. She runs inside, a small, slight woman, while a group of larger men runs in the opposite direction. And that's Clarice: Smaller, running in the opposite direction, off-course, tough but out of breath. At the end of the movie, she'll be in the same position; off-course, out of breath, relying on incomplete training while her compatriots move in the opposite direction. Jonathan Demme clearly studied his Hitchcock; symmetrical film-making of that sort is the kind of thing you learn from the master.

Much has been made of the chilling intimacy of the relationship between Clarice and Hannibal. He is the dark side of the mentoring relationship she seeks with Jack Crawford (Glenn). As she reveals her childhood losses, one can see why reaching towards mentors is appealing to her. And with Lecter, there's also the sheer joy of winning; anything he reveals to her hasn't been revealed to anyone else. She's infinitely special and can reflect this success back to her real mentor.

There is also a feminist undercurrent to the film. Starling is a little bird, preyed upon everywhere by larger men. She is a surrogate for the female victims of Buffalo Bill, who likes large women whom he makes helpless. Instead she is a small woman who can fight back. She can connect to Lecter even though he terrifies her, because he is just the worst possible version of every man who surrounds her, looks down on her, judges her, and tries to victimize her. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she's the poor sexy little girl running away, who turns around and kicks ass.

(Cross-post of the Lambs)