Monday 9 April 2012

Movie Review: The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)

A journey into the darkest recesses of grotesque human behaviour, The Silence Of The Lambs is a devastating psychological terror ride. Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling are two unforgettable and uniquely compelling characters, brought to life by defining performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.

FBI trainee Agent Clarice Starling (Foster) is assigned by her supervisor Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the Behavioral Science Unit to talk to prisoner Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), a deeply troubled genius psychologist incarcerated for cannibalistic murders. Crawford would like Lecter to help develop the profile of a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, who is murdering and skinning young women. Lecter has refused to cooperate with the FBI, but Crawford believes that Starling can connect with him.

The Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane is supervised by the sleazy Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), who immediately makes an uninvited and covetous advance on Starling. It does not take long for Lecter, who equally despises Chilton, to analyze Starling to her core, and from a position of total psychological dominance he decides to help her by gradually providing clues that may lead to Buffalo Bill's identity. As Starling starts to close in on the serial killer, Lecter plots his next bloody escapade.

Based on the book by Thomas Harris, The Silence Of The Lambs is unrelenting in its dive to the depths of depravity. The Ted Tally screenplay provides no relief, no comic moments, no hope that there is anywhere near enough good in the world to balance the mounting horror uncovered by Starling.

At best, characters like Jack Crawford are neutral, and even his motives and judgement in throwing a trainee into Lecter's cage have to be suspect. Otherwise, Dr. Chilton, Dr. Lecter and Buffalo Bill just represent ever increasing levels of deeply damaged humanity, and the other prisoners in Lecter's dungeon, given the chance, would keep pushing the scale south.

That Anthony Hopkins humanizes Lecter is astonishing, his performance bone chilling in its portrayal of a ravenous monster with the dangerous facade of a smiling human. The combination of extreme intelligence, searing insight into the psyche of any foe, and utmost disregard for societal norms is the visible layer of Lecter's hideous tendencies to eat his way through victims. Director Jonathan Demme frequently fills the screen with Hopkins squarely addressing the camera, forcing viewers to share Starling's nightmare as it comes to life.

Jodie Foster is no less impressive as Clarice Starling. Lecter's offensive weapons are well honed to destroy powerful enemies. Clarice's obvious fragility and almost immediate willingness - through lack of choice - to be vulnerable allow her to sneak into Lecter's tiny capacity to be relatively compassionate. Foster is unforgettable as she guides Starling into the literal and metaphorical darkness, a character out of her depth in terms of professional experience but quickly realizing that in dealing with extreme outliers, her lack of mastery of traditional methods is likely a good thing, if not the only thing that will help her penetrate a world of unimaginable evil.

Tak Fujimoto's cinematography matches the subject matter, with The Silence Of The Lamb bathed in grim dark yellows and browns, and shot with limited light to emphasize the absence of optimism in the corners of humanity occupied by the likes of Lecter. The music score by Howard Shore is a classic of richly understated mounting horror.

The Silence Of The Lamb stares into the face of the beast that man is capable of becoming. In it's manipulative connivance, the vision is even more terrifying than the concept.

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