By Kristy Strouse
There are very few films that flirt with perfection. “The Silence of the Lambs” is one of those. This is partly due to Jonathan Demme’s eerie resonance throughout, the apt camera work, and the malformation of horror, thriller, mystery and pure character drama.
One thing that did it for sure? Clarice Starling. Our heroine is unlike others to grace the screen before her. Jodie Foster completely personifies this intelligent and brave FBI agent in training. She’s a tough southern belle with an openness and honesty that makes her intrinsically relatable. Her portrayal is one that is stunning in its ability to marry strength and vulnerability without it being a weakness.
While she has her past traumas, and there’s a level of insecurity there, she doesn’t live by it. In a male-dominated profession (something Demme articulates with well-placed shots) her disadvantage is obvious, but she quickly surpasses that. She’s extremely smart and has worked hard to get where she is. When she’s given the opportunity to interview one of the most notorious and disturbing serial killers, she doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t crumble under his pummeling wit, and despite a couple missteps, she manages to win his attention and ultimately, his respect.
In this particular field, she’s frequently overlooked or looked at too much. Whether it be by the leering Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), who must mention her attractiveness, or when her superior Jack Crawford steps (Scott Glenn) aside to speak with a sheriff away from Starling, it’s there.
It is a melancholy tale, and this is heavy, heavy stuff. Silence is a dark, embroiling, psychopathic narrative. It is also scary because the Buffalo Bill’s of the world have existed. It’s quantifiable, they’re out there. Bill (Ted Levine) emulates Ted Bundy (and others) with some of the ways he entraps his victims, and while Clarice and the team have an outline for his profile, he is another character that isn’t what you expect.
Hannibal, though, is a whole other story. From their first meeting, as he stands steely over her, studying her with immaculate detail, there’s a presence that stays throughout the film despite his limited screen time. The battle of minds that ensues between Clarice and Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), and their quid-pro-quo, are some of the best scenes. Hannibal is exceptionally transcendent of any norm. Not only are we intrigued by him, and let’s not forget how wicked he is – he eats people- but we even like him. Hopkins manages to instill a sense of fear, but also curiosity. Something the audience can share with both Clarice and Hannibal, as they are both very inquisitive. Their bond, especially after she discloses her personal story (which eventually leads to her finding the killer), as peculiar as it is, is real.
Often, he’s what some remember about the film the most, and it is understandable given how interesting the character is. However, this is Clarice’s story.
“So, why has “The Silence of the Lambs” lingered on to be known as one of the best? Why does it seem like more than just a horror? In truth, the film is much more than the impression a quick plot description would give. This film works every potential angle it can to deliver something as spine-tingling as it is thought-provoking.”
Demme uses a lot of close up shots as a way of purporting discomfort. Much like the characters displayed, he’s calculating in his filmmaking choices. A subtle decision to make the film, essentially, to match Clarice’s own unease, has us following our star’s lead through this journey.
As she uncovers more clues from Lector, discussing them with her fellow female FBI trainee Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons), she resolutely pursues the killer. Clarice is incredibly easy to inspire, especially given the fact that we see her break down a couple times, both outside the prison when she first visits Lector (and gets assaulted) and her visible upset shows when she’s examining a body.
It joined a very exclusive club (only two others) and in the 1992 Oscars won the big five awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (based on Thomas Harris’ novel). All of it was deserving. Ted Tally writes the screenplay taking just the right amount from the novel, allowing Demme’s vision to come to fruition.
“Clarice is the glue that binds this movie together. She changed things and gave us the female lead that we needed. Through the various twists and turns, she’s our constant, our source of emotion and our guide.”
So, why has “The Silence of the Lambs” lingered on to be known as one of the best? Why does it seem like more than just a horror? In truth, the film is much more than the impression a quick plot description would give. This film works every potential angle it can to deliver something as spine-tingling as it is thought-provoking. It dives into the psychological elements of horror with an atmospheric tone that doesn’t let up. The tension is unrelenting, and the intricate characters draw us to a story that is distinctively original. That intrinsic music sinks and buries below the surface in a nagging fashion. With as many times as I’ve seen this film, I still get goosebumps when I first hear it, still feel inspired by Clarice’s perseverance and spirit, and am left astounded by the late Demme’s masterpiece.
Clarice is the glue that binds this movie together. She changed things and gave us the female lead that we needed. Through the various twists and turns, she’s our constant, our source of emotion and our guide. Jodie Foster relinquishes all expectations by becoming one of the truest heroes, making the film an ever-lasting contribution to cinema that is as potent today as it ever was.