Silence of the Lambs (1991) — Best serial killer movie ever

“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

Justin’s rating: See, I think eating body parts would be completely gross if you didn’t cook and season them properly

Justin’s review: It’s hard to explain exactly why Silence of the Lambs looms majestically over standard horror movies, or over its lacking sequel Hannibal, or over even the countless serial killer knock-offs that came after. All of the elements contained within — the fledgling heroine, the evil killer, following the clues to solve a mystery — come standard with every filmmaker’s kit. There is nothing new under the sun, so Silence does old things in a new and breathtakingly powerful way.

Like most scary things, we go to watch because, in a perverse way, it affirms our courage without ever being in danger ourselves. It’s human nature to want to face the things they fear most and come away feeling triumphant that they toppled their fear of pudding, or whatever have you. Horror flicks — like rollercoasters — offer people a safely-controlled environment to face these fears. Thus guys can go see Nightmare on Jason’s Haunted Hill and come out feeling like conquering heroes… except they’re heroes with a small wet patch near their jean zipper. What unnerved so many people about Silence is that this is one of those rare horror/suspense films that doesn’t let you remain safely outside the glass (a clever metaphor for the movie audience and horror echoed in the mental asylum visits here); Silence simply convinces you that all this could be real.

Boom. You’re in the film.

Evil in Silence of the Lambs takes two human forms: both serial killers and both extremely dangerous. But while one is the epitome of everything we associate with killers — psychopathic behavior, imprisoning the princess, uncomplicated brutality — the other one wears a very civilized person disguise. Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is the opposite of everything we associate with villains. He’s intellectual, articulate, meticulous, into the fine arts, and a doctor of psychology. He doesn’t gnash his teeth or make overblown threats; instead, as we are first introduced to him, he’s standing still and quite calm.

Hopkins manages to pull off a magic feat of impressive proportions during the film. While Lecter is quite open with his past and who he is, he manages to lull the characters in the film (and us, to be honest) into refusing to believe he’s quite as bad as he says he is. How can a person who is clearly brighter than anyone else in this movie and who dotes on courtesy be all that bad? Because we see the side of Lecter that he wants us to see, we begin to question his evil nature altogether. I believe that this is a test to see whether a person believes in an inherent “goodness” of man — can there actually be people who have no redeeming qualities? Is there pure evil in the world today? We make excuses for Lecter on his behalf (as do the characters, in their treatment of him) because it’s easier than accepting the possibility of absolutes.

It’s a powerful statement, to be sure, and one that the film will slap you with upside the head by the time the credits roll. As you are lulled in by Lecter’s friendly (if odd) demeanor and smile, never stop looking at his eyes. Brrr! No aspect of Lecter is as striking as those cold dead unblinking eyes that remind me, more as I rewatch this movie, of a highly dangerous snake that is biding its time before striking.

Beyond the study of Lecter as a serial killer is — in my opinion — the key to taking this film to the highest level: the relationship between Lecter and FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). While this movie does engage in the typical cat-and-mouse hunt between the good guy and the baddie, it’s all a slight of hand to distract you from the much more interesting alliance of Lecter and Clarice. As Clarice meets Lecter as sort of a homework assignment, he just about rips the unprepared girl to shreds with his psychoanalysis and unnerving presence. Yet as the film progresses, Clarice and Lecter develop a unique relationship — not quite a friendship, not quite a team, and hardly a romance (although it contains elements of all these) — that ignites the screen whenever they’re on together.

In a virtual baptism by fire, Clarice learns from the best and shows that she’s tougher than her petite demeanor suggests. As desperate as she is for Lecter’s help in solving another case, she is caught in a vulnerable situation. He will only trade information for personal glimpses into her life. How would you feel about exposing your deepest thoughts to a guy like this? I doubt any serial killer would want to hear my hours-long monologues on the virtues of video games, but if it happened, it’d be scary. We have to love Clarice’s stubborn resileance, as she refuses to let anything — disrespect, prejudice, background, big hulking men, scary cannibals — trample over her. She might be small, but by the movie’s end, she’s proven herself to be about five times the man that most could ever be.

While he starts out their relationship by batting her around (metaphorically), it’s interesting to see Lecter develop deep respect for Clarice over time. He warms up to her as he does to no other (and the movie gets any snide comments out of the way when a sleazy doctor suggests that it’s Clarice’s femininity that might get him to open up), becoming a sort of mentor. In his isolation, Lecter is as lonely as a person can be, and he sees a like soulmate in Clarice. It is this relationship that the audience pins its hope on that even a person as evil as Lecter can change for the better; yet how ironic is it that only Clarice never forgets who he truly is.

Silence of the Lambs is dark without being soulless, it’s graphic without being gratuitous (in fact, probably one of the most unnerving scenes is an autopsy that suggests horrible smells and sights), and when the day is done, it is as much of a victory for the bad guys as it is for the good. While people might dote on Lecter’s character or the violence as reasons they like this movie, don’t fall into such narrow vision — from near-perfect camerawork to a haunting score to odd characters and dialogue to multiple themes, Silence deserves more recognition than just being “that one with the guy who goes ‘fft-fft-fft’ with the liver and chianti.”

Didja notice?

  • The “Pain Agony Hurt Love It” sign was actually part of the FBI course; the filmmakers decided to leave it up
  • Little Clarice in the elevator with all the big tall men — and all the little suggestions at the academy that few think she is cut out to be an agent (like the men jogging who look at her and smile). The elevator scene is later replayed when Clarice is standing in the waiting room with all of the nonsmiling male cops
  • The red lighting when Chilton shows Clarice the photo
  • The camera shakes and bumps slightly as Clarice goes down the hall in the mental hospital. This was done by building a special dolly track to simulate walking movement (the steady-cams and standard dolly tracks were too smooth)
  • Lecter’s mocking of Clarice’s background by slipping into a fake southern accent and calling her a “rube”
  • Lecter rarely blinks, but does throw more than one wink at Clarice
  • How did Lecter get that pen?
  • Lecter in the dark cell = very scary
  • Beetle checkers
  • The two flashbacks that are mixed in with “current time” scenes… very well done, especially the one in the funeral home
  • The odd bug doctor is actually kind of cute in the way he hits on Starling (and strangely enough, is the most honorable dating prospect she faces in the film)
  • Claw marks on the well walls
  • What “quid pro quo” means
  • A ‘Bon Appetit’ magazine can be seen in Hannibal Lecter’s temporary cell.
  • Almost all the scenes in Hannibal’s original cell have either a reflection of Hannibal or Clarice, depending on the camera’s point of view.
  • In Hannibal’s last words to Clarice before Dr. Chilton has her removed, he stresses the word “simplicity”. This was not just an urging to her to keep things simple, but was a reference to the dress pattern company Simplicity.

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