Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Modern Classic Movie Review: The Silence of the Lambs

I probably saw this movie sometime when I was in high school. I was fairly familiar with it and I found it pretty damn frightening. It's not quite a horror movie in the same vein as a slasher film, but I thought it worth including because it's a variation on horror and it was part of my childhood and youth.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

The killer's gaze is turned back on the audience, turning the power structure of the horror film around.

The Silence of the Lambs turns the serial killer and slasher film genre on its head by crafting the most compelling character not as the killer whom the FBI is hunting, but as the already convicted Hannibal Lecter, who sits in a basement cell and may have crucial information to help them catch their man. More remarkable than that is that everyone remembers Lecter as this imposing and frightening villain, a role that helped Anthony Hopkins win the Best Actor Oscar, but he is on screen for all of 16 minutes. That speaks to the power of seduction that he possesses.

As I watch the movie now, I realize that Hopkins won the Oscar (among other awards) for what is essentially a gimmicky performance. It’s a juicy role that garners attention. He’s a villain, but one who has so many redeeming qualities it’s nearly impossible to ignore the fact that he’s a secondary protagonist. The AFI chose him as one if it’s top movie villains, but this is a misnomer for Lecter. He’s not an antagonist to Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee enlisted to coax information out of him. In terms of narrative function, the real villain, the real threat to societies moral fabric and to Starling’s life at the end, is serial killer Buffalo Bill. Lecter operate by a code. It’s a morally twisted code, to be sure, and one that results in the deaths of what any rational person would consider innocents, but it’s a code we recognize as at least partially rational. We know, as Starling knows, when Lecter escapes he will not come after her. He has no qualms with her. But in the closing scene, when he places a courtesy call to her and announces, “I’m having an old friend for dinner,” before the camera reveals him stalking his old sadistic psychiatrist Dr. Chilton, we feel satisfaction that a repugnant doctor is getting his comeuppance.

The adaptation by Ted Tally from the popular Thomas Harris novel is faithful while excising enough material to make it manageable within the constraints of a feature film running time. So many films adapted from novels today run well over the two hour mark. It was so nice twenty years ago when an adept screenwriter could take a longer piece of work and cut it down to something that still makes sense. Of course plot-driven books like Silence of the Lambs and other thrillers should be easier to squeeze into a shorter space of time. Tally devotes the right amount of screen time to the process of investigation. It never turns dry because the intercut scenes between Starling and Lecter are the lifeblood of the film. Lecter speaks in riddles, so while his scenes are investigative in nature, it’s not about forensics and physical evidence but rather about psychological probing and toying.

The novice Starling represents not a perfect and equally clever foil for the brilliant and cunning Lecter, but an innocent who piques his curiosity and interest. She is someone he can guide and mold. In Jodie Foster, director Jonathan Demme found an actress who could deftly express both Starling’s tremendous fortitude and the vulnerability that comes from her fledgling status. The role is a real actorly one that doesn’t rely on flash, teeth gnashing, scenery chewing or makeup. Foster is rock solid as this above average character in an extraordinary situation.

As a director, Demme has this unsettling habit of having his characters gaze either directly into camera when addressing an off camera character. In Silence of the Lambs he uses the technique to gently suggest Starling’s first person point of view. He never uses it when she’s on camera. The result is a thriller that is seen mostly through Starling’s eyes. His use of the technique here adds to the horror atmosphere and turns the genre around in a startling way. The horror genre is known for shots from the perspective of the killer turning his gaze on his potential victims. Here the gaze is from the hero and turned upon Lecter, who is himself a monstrous presence. I was less convinced of Demme’s use of the technique in later films like Philadelphia and Beloved.

SPOILERS: As a horror film, The Silence of the Lambs succeeds at being smart about instilling terror in the viewer. Truly this is a thriller with horror elements, in particular the set piece of Lecter’s escape from his cell by fashioning a lock pick out of a pen and then using the facial skin from one of his victims to conceal his own and let the guards take him out in an ambulance. The sequence is expertly constructed to create a sense of trepidation unequaled anywhere else in the film with the possible exception of the climax which has Starling being trailed by Buffalo Bill in a pitch black basement. But the sheer length and complexity of editing in the escape scene set it far above and beyond anything else in the movie. Finally, with the possible exception of the use of his voice in Joy Ride, Ted Levine has probably never been better cast than as the troubled serial killer Buffalo Bill. His deep voice alone casts his scenes with fear trembling.

I remain not entirely convinced that this is one of the best movies of all time or even of the latter half of the 20th century. I would, however, place it squarely atop the list of thrillers and other police procedurals.

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