Why It’s Hard To Root Against Hannibal Lecter.
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter.
The last film in our Horror of the Decade series is 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. As with the previous three films, this one is another all-timer for incredibly justified reasons. Releasing on Valentine’s Day (how romantic!), the film was well-received critically and commercially, and has only grown in stature since. One of only three films to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally), The Silence of the Lambs is a true thrill ride from start to finish. For my money this is one of the most expertly-crafted films of all time from a pacing standpoint, as no moment, let alone any scene, is wasted. The script’s propulsive energy hooks us in from the very beginning and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.
Conventionally framed primarily as a “race against the clock” serial killer thriller, one of its smartest aspects is how the film gives the audience many of the basic answers, and much of the thrill is in seeing how they come together and unfold for the characters. There are numerous examples of dialogue, exposition, and camera-framing that all do an expert job at keeping us in the loop, but not entirely in the know. Buffalo Bill, terrifying menace that he is, is presented to us without mystery, and in that sense we’re steps ahead of Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and the other members of the FBI.
Hopkins as Lecter tries to elicit a reaction from Starling (Jodie Foster).
The central pathos, terror, and mystery of the film all stem from Hannibal Lecter, your favorite villain’s favorite villain who is simultaneously despicably evil and repulsive while also being nearly impossible to look away from. Anthony Hopkins, who as Lecter is only on screen for sixteen(!) total minutes, looms so large over both the plot and psychology of the film that his presence is constantly felt. The connection he forms with Clarice appears genuine, as he respects her earnest determination and lack of pretension, which is ironic given how stuffy and pedantic he seems to love being. They are both outsiders in their lives, albeit for quite different reasons, but they treat each other with a respect and humanity that we see both of them not receive from many others in their lives. With an incarcerated cannibal serial killer such as Hannibal it might be rather understandable that he doesn’t get the praise, attention, or respect that he obviously feels he deserves, but Clarice similarly is not taken seriously as a young woman in a field dominated by men.
Jodie Foster must be given equal praise to Anthony Hopkins for the way she commands the screen every time she’s on it (much longer than Hopkins’ sixteen minutes). Her portrayal of Clarice as a person who appears endlessly duty-bound and pragmatically focused on the task at hand, whatever that may be. That being said, she comes across as highly relatable even though we see very little of her non-professional life. She’s easy to root for, and the film consistently frames her in ways that naturally draw us to her. Camera techniques, narrative devices, and themes of innocence, sacrifice, and identity converge to make us almost root for Lecter. Despite the fact that his own doctor correctly views him as a “monster, a pure psychopath” we are made to feel this way because of how he supports and respects Clarice in similar ways that the film engenders from the audience.
Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill.
It is difficult to make a truly terrifying film with no supernatural or other-worldly elements, but The Silence of the Lambs achieves this feat by giving us two different antagonists who aren’t nameless, faceless enemies, but rather characters who are scary precisely because of how their humanity seems to be at odds with their inhumane acts. It’s easy to write off Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill as merely “crazy”, and trust me they are, but it is so much more than that. They both romanticize and fetishize their crimes, they adhere to philosophies that seem impenetrable, but also have a certain type of poetry to them. Bill is fixated on transformation, represented with his fascination with butterflies, among other less desirable applications. Hannibal, similarly, is extremely well-educated from an academic sense, and his fondness for the finer things in life famously extends to pairing his cannibalism with “fava beans and a nice Chianti”. He’s insane, but also insanely principled, illustrated by utterances such as “Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me”, a sentiment he truly means in the context of how he sees Clarice disrespected, but also absurd given his many horrendous acts we both hear about and witness directly. This duality, this depth, is a large part of what makes the film, and its central characters, so memorable.
Lecter being moved from his cell, with law enforcement taking no chances.
This richness extends throughout all aspects of the film, as Howard Shore’s score deftly guides us through the rollercoaster of emotions we experience, and as mentioned previously the direction, performances, and cinematography (that Tak Fujimoto was not even nominated for best cinematography is a true Oscar crime) coalesce into a film that is as thrilling and rewarding on its thirty-first viewing as it is on its first. With that being said, I hope you’ll join us at The Moviehouse to partake in this film’s frightening delights and deviant pleasures!