April 21, 2010

#74: The Silence of the Lambs

I can't imagine that this entry will be very long, because of most what can be said about Jonathan Demme's 1991 horror classic has already been said. But this blog isn't really used for making life-changing observations about film, it's really just me talking about movies, and whether or not what I end up writing is particularly profound, well ... that remains to be seen. The Silence of the Lambs asks a lot of its audience, right from the first shots and those pulpy titles, and it seemed for my roommate and I almost too much to handle at first.

This picture is evidence of that.

Company: Kecia, big movie fan and great horror-movie buddy; and a surprise guest, Ali, nurse on the go who got off work early and stopped by about a half-hour into the movie

Cuisine: Carlo Rossi Chianti (for obvious reasons), a gyro from Dino's for Kecia (for lamby reasons), and delicious queso dip (I was going for a bean-themed dip and somehow ended up at queso, but still: so. delicious. Here's the recipe!)

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster in her second consecutive Academy Award-winning performance) is an FBI agent-in-training assigned to interview a serial killer and plumb him for information on a killer at large, known only as "Buffalo Bill," who has been kidnapping, torturing, and murdering young women. The setup Demme gives us to meeting our mastermind antagonist is genius, particularly seeing Starling's reaction to a picture of one of his victims but never showing the gory details of the photo. It's twelve minutes into the movie and all we want is to see him. After a long walk down the hallway ...

... where we see only an empty chair facing what must be his cell ...

... the camera rounds the corner to find Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, also an Oscar winner) staring right at us. Not only is this creeptastic and freaky, but it also leads us to believe that he is all-knowing, that he can see right through us, that he knew we were coming to see him. A truly brilliant criminal mastermind, he toys with Starling before ultimately dismissing her, but through the course of the investigation, they create a bond that goes beyond criminal and detective into psychiatrist and patient, a playing field that gives Lecter the upper hand once again. It's savage and terrifying enough even with a plate of glass between them -- imagine if he was free!

That famous first scene is only six minutes long. Six minutes. Jeez.

He begins to lead her through information about Buffalo Bill, who is in the process of kidnapping a senator's daughter.

Hey, you're a size 14, aren't you?

How fascinating that his hand has the word LOVE tattooed on it, as though these unspeakable acts he's performing are all done out of love. The movie does an incredible job of balancing the parallel cat-and-mouse storylines of Lecter/Starling and Buffalo Bill/Catherine Martin. God. I gotta read this book. Don't be weirded out, but I love reading about serial killers -- they're fascinating.

I've seen this movie several times but it's been at least two or three years since I last sat down with it. This time around, I was particularly struck by Jodie Foster. Nearly universal acclaim has been set on Foster and Hopkins (they are both truly brilliant), but what an amazing stroke of brilliance to cast Foster in this role. My generation knows her largely for her work post-Silence which has never quite topped her one-two punch that landed her two golden guys, but prior to this film, two details about her life as an actress seem to qualify her here. One: she started acting at a very early age and America knew her before this for her work in Disney films, and then later, primarily for Taxi Driver and Freaky Friday. Moviegoers knew her as a young, innocent thing -- true, as a girl who had played a prostitute at age 14, but nonetheless, as a starlet. Two: she had her fill with deranged men in real life with John Hinckley, Jr., who stalked her relentlessly and finally attempted to assassinate President Reagan in order to impress her. What a better fit for Clarice Starling than a woman who knew first hand how it felt to be in that position.

Without question, one of the most effective tricks played on us in the film (without giving anything away) is the sequence leading up to Starling's visit to Jame Gumb's home. We've already been treated to Dr. Lecter's fantastic escape, and now this! It's enough to make you lean back in your chair and grab onto anyone near you, no matter how you feel about them. Forget everything: this is a scene that requires you to hold onto somebody. Demme could not have created a more horrifying and spine-tingling journey through that basement (what basement in the world is that maze-like? Cripes!) and I believe that I didn't breathe the whole time Starling is in it.

Another thing I noticed this time around is that so much of our view of Starling is in extreme close-up, as though we too are psychiatrists trying to follow her journey through Lecter's twisted games of logic. At last, when she receives that phone call from the now at-large criminal, the camera pans slowly away from her, leaving her alone for the first time. What a perfect detail, leading us inevitably to the last shot of the film ...

... as Hannibal walks free, prepared to "have an old friend for dinner." The camera watches him disappear into the crowd, and finally (mercifully), the credits roll. O. M. G.

I'd wager that there hasn't been a more effective thriller since (I'd love opinions on that one) and I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see one for a while. This kind of film doesn't come along every day. Oosh. Just as creepy as I remember, every time. Well done.

More thrills are on their way: the next movie is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: one I remember liking a lot but one I rated only three stars on my Netflix queue. Clarifications to come.

1 comment:

  1. Max, f'real. I love a good thriller. I haven't seen this in awhile. I remember from the very beginning the first time I saw this I was never truly afraid of Dr. Lecter, because I love Anthony Hopkins so much. The freaky basement and Buffalo Bill scared me in this movie. And if I remember correctly, you don't see him being violent very early on in the film. Kinda gets you to trust him, even when he's talking about eating people's livers. Fantastic. Reading this reminded me more of next film, Hannibal. It may be worth a watch, I remember some pretty thrilling scenes.