Saturday, November 20, 2010
The Silence of the Lambs
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 74
Writer: Ted Tally
Director: Jonathan Demme
Star: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine
Clarice Starling’s quest to become an FBI agent and do good seems futile from the opening frames of “Silence of the Lambs.” The other agents-in-training tower over her and judge her with every lingering glance. Her hillbilly accent gives her speech much less authority than it should. Most importantly, the world around her seems to have rotted and spoiled from its core.
Yes, this is a horror movie, but the viewer would still expect certain scenes to be filmed with warmth or beauty, if only to counterbalance the darkness. Not here. The forest Starling (Jodie Foster) trains in as the film opens is gray, wet and ominous. The river agents fly over to investigate a corpse is brown with waste. Even the main titles are black and ugly. Every location these characters encounter seems devoid of anything alive or worth saving. As if dead forests and deteriorating buildings on the surface of the Earth weren’t enough, the monsters that inhabit the film live beneath that surface in isolated, cold caverns.
The film has two such monsters. The first we meet is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Starling is sent by the FBI’s Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to get Lecter to fill out useless profile forms. To get to Lecter’s cell Starling descends flight after flight of stairs, then is escorted through a seemingly endless collection of barred doors and safety locks. When she finally gets to Lecter’s beyond-maximum security hallway, we notice that the other inmates are kept behind bars while Lecter is held behind Plexiglas. Holy crap.
The second is Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). He seems to live in an unimpressive middle-class home, but underneath is a cavern that seems to reach endlessly out under the earth. He keeps his live victims at the bottom of a dry well and, a few rooms over, sews his dead victim’s skin into a sickening coat of flesh.
The hunt for Bill drives the story but Lecter is the one who lingers most in our minds. His speech is mannered and his persona is by turns cold and inviting. He’s an enigma, and in that way he interests us in the same way he is interested in Starling. Of course the real reason we grow to “enjoy” Lecter is because he is sympathetic to Starling. On the whole he’s kind to her in a world of men who dismiss her, perhaps because she doesn’t cave in the same way so many others would when he calls her a generation away from white trash. Hopkins is perfect in the role and makes the delicate balance between gentleman and monster seem easy. After one of the other inmates throws semen on Starling, Lecter whispers to him until he goes mad(der) and swallows his own tongue. He’s not flirting with her in any sense of the word, but the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that Lecter is male and Starling is female. The moment their fingers touch, albeit only for a second, is electrifying.
That Starling can hold her own with him is a testament to her character. Foster delicately balances Starling’s innocence with her inherent strength. After all, she’s only in training at the FBI, and writer Ted Tally shows that, though very smart, she isn’t a prodigy in her department. Tally and director Jonathan Demme get a lot of mileage out of a small moment in her training where she runs into a room and is about to cuff a faux-suspect but forgets to check behind the door she entered through first. During the final moments of the film, as she is desperately checking through the rooms of Bill’s underground lair, the audience is screaming for her to check behind the damn doors every time she enters a new level of hell.
Demme makes a very ballsy move by shooting the movie head-on. When Crawford is first introduced, he stares directly at the camera to read his lines. When Lecter asks to see Starling’s credentials he is staring through the glass directly at us (“Closer, please. Closer.”). We see the group of local police men staring at us as Starling tries to get them to leave the room. It’s unnerving, but hugely successful. We immediately feel for Starling, understand what she’s gone through her entire life and feel added suspense as she stares down these monsters. If the Crawford character did not look at the camera head-on, we would perhaps think much differently of the subplot where we wonder just what he wants with Starling. Is he aroused by her or does he see her as an equal? Glenn plays the beats of the character just right, and the ambiguity of their parting handshake speaks volumes as a result.
The movie makes another ballsy move in abandoning Starling for fifteen minutes during the second act, but here I’m more torn about its success. Tally and Demme instead follow a bunch of nameless officers after Lecter has escaped from his cell. The scene is well shot and the thrills well choreographed, but since we care nothing about any of these characters it doesn’t resonate emotionally with the viewer. The pay-off of Lecter pulling off a mask of skin in the ambulance, almost makes it worth it. Almost.
Above all else, “Silence of the Lambs” is scary. I’ve focused almost exclusively on the characters and world, but the point of a horror movie is to scare the viewer, and this one does its job brilliantly. When Starling is in the Bill’s basement at the climax of the movie it only takes up about seven minutes of screen time, but after multiple viewings it still feels like a horrifying, suspenseful eternity. I always see the movie referred to as a “thriller,” perhaps because it sounds classier than “horror movie” and movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture should seem classy, but make no mistakes, this is a horror movie. To call it anything else demeans the rest of the genre, which is just as visceral and important as every other film genre. There is a notable lack of horror movies on the AFI Top 100 list (“The Sixth Sense,” “Jaws” and “Psycho” are the only others) and this is a horrible oversight that, frankly, angers me. When AFI created Top 10 lists for all of the major genres, “Horror” was not one of them. You always hear that the best horror and science fiction movies “transcend” their genre, as if there is some shame in those genres. Movies like “The Exorcist,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Shining,” “The Uninvited,” “Halloween” and “Rosemary’s Baby” have just as much artistic merit as any movie on this list, and to pretend they do not because they involve “cheap scares” is laughable.
The “cheap scares” in “Silence of the Lambs” are well earned and beautifully executed. They impact us because we care so much about Starling. They linger with us because they tap into those moments where we are by ourselves, on edge, and can’t figure out why. Who hasn’t been alone in the dark and felt like there was someone else there, watching us?
My Score (out of 5): ****1/2