Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Five


#5 — The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but, looking back, Jonathan Demme wasn’t the most obvious choice to helm the film adaptation of Thomas Harris’s grim novel about an FBI trainee who helps hunt down a serial killer, enlisting the assistance of an incarcerated mastermind in the process. Certainly, Demme had cut his teeth on this sort of material, directing revenge fantasies and women-in-prison pictures for Roger Corman in the seventies, but he’d spent the years after–years in which he presumably had a little more choice regarding his projects–in a far gentler mode, largely alternating between insightful, humanistic comedies and nonfiction films that celebrated striking, unique live performances. The Silence of the Lambs may not seem that grisly compared to the torture porn that regularly gets stamped with a nice safe R rating by the MPAA these days, but the violence in the story was significant enough to scare off previous filmmakers. Maybe it wasn’t odd to me because I already believed in Demme as one of those rare directors who could do just about anything.

Using Ted Tally’s expertly adapted screenplay, Demme tracks through highly fraught terrain. There’s always the danger that the film can became too lurid, or overly enamored with the darkness at its core. It’s easy to lapse from uncompromising views of the lurking evil undulating in basic human nature to cheap shock or callous manipulation of the audience. Rather than defaulting too much the other way and letting the film become cold and clinical, Demme finds an ideal middle ground. He’s fully invested in the humanity of everyone on screen, not necessarily trying to understand them–there are no excuses offered for the crimes of the serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill–but observing them with a probing curiosity. To a degree, he settles himself and the audience directly into his protagonist’s person, building the shots around her own keen, thorough observations. Portions of the film are literally and figuratively from Clarice Starling’s point of view, making it all the more chilling when the moment arises when she’s robbed of her sight and we finally see her through another’s eyes.

Starling is played by Jodie Foster in a sharp, inventive performance. She plays a young woman whose flight from her personal demons has led her all the way to the FBI, and is discovering and developing her own sense of authority on a moment by moment basis. Every encounter she faces as she works a case above her stature impacts her, shapes her. Foster conveys that shifting sense of self while also holding tightly to the pole of Starling’s inner being. In one of the finest acting duets in all of film, she faces off in quid pro quo conversations with Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist with an uncommon grasp of the workings of damaged, criminally-inclined minds, in no small part because he has an intimate connection to the urges that drive someone to see their fellow man as a negligible creature, suitable for striking down and perhaps repurposing to better pair with a nice red wine. Anthony Hopkins tears into the role with something like the thespian equivalent to his character’s blazing intellect, crafting a portrait of a man that is equal parts terrifying and alluring. Lecter is a poised, dutifully respectful man, who will gladly toy with someone, wrapping them up in his poisonous charisma, until their emotions collapse in on themselves. In the role, Hopkins absolutely commands the screen. He’s like hot embers in the most vivid colors, beckoning to the be touched despite the clear damage it will do. When he and Foster trade words, every sentence holdings its own challenge, it’s breathtaking.

I’m not sure what drew Demme to this film in the first place, although his complete lack of interest in realizing the grotesqueries of Harris’s sequel Hannibal might hold a clue. In essence, Demme found in The Silence of the Lambs the exact same sort of story that he found in the earlier Melvin and Howard and the later Rachel Getting Married, films that are drastically different at first glance. He found stories of struggle, pain, shafts of hope, and finally the realization that personal journeys don’t wrap up neatly. He found another path to examining the troubling vagaries of life. He found what a great filmmaker wants above all else: a story worth telling.

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