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The Silence of the Lambs: Special Edition

MGM Home Video

Starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins

Written by Ted Tally
Directed by Jonathan Demme

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

It's extremely rare for a movie to win all of the top five Academy Awards: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. The Silence of the Lambs, a modestly budgeted thriller released in the middle of winter — on Valentine's Day, 1991 — took critics, audiences and the Academy by surprise by turning out to be one of the most mesmerizing stories of Good vs. Evil ever committed to celluloid, and swept the Oscars over a year later. A decade's passed, and it remains one of cinema's scariest and most entertaining offerings, neither horror nor suspense nor whodunit, but a stunning combination of all three.

Jodie Foster plays one of the screen's great heroines as Clarice Starling, a rookie FBI agent handpicked to help find a notorious serial killer by the Bureau's expert on the subject, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). Her assignment is to visit the infamous killer Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant psychiatrist who has made a habit of eating parts of his patients.

Clarice's first glimpse — and ours — of Lecter is destined to become one of history's classic villain entrances: As we approach Lecter's cell, we find him standing perfectly still in the center of the floor, ready and waiting in his crisp (almost tailored) prison jumpsuit. Despite his smile, his glittering eyes are like that of a savage wild animal prepared to strike — in fact, he leans forward, just slightly, as if prepared to do just that, should the opportunity arise. When he speaks, we hear the voice of a man who's so confident in his superior intellect that he can barely stand conversation with ordinary people, yet who is bored enough to toy with the new visitor as long as it suits him. It's an indelible first impression of evil, and Hopkins well deserved his Oscar.

Silence's other manifestation of evil is the serial killer she's hoping Lecter will lead her to, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), his gruesome nickname bestowed upon him by the police because of his modus operandi: He skins his victims. Balancing Hopkins' lip-smacking performance as the diabolical Lecter, and Levine's turn as the terrifying madman Buffalo Bill is Foster's dead-on portrayal of Starling, a classic hero. The rare female action lead usually goes about her business in ass-hugging shorts and Wonderbra — Clarice Starling is almost Arthurian, having devoted her life to the cause of justice and swallowing her terror to battle dragons without the aid of stiletto heels or a big strong man to save her bacon.

Thomas Harris' novel is a fine example of how to write a tight, economical thriller, and director Jonathan Demme's direction of Ted Tally's script brings the viewer into the story almost by force — closeups, particularly of Lecter, are abundant; there's at least one shot in every segment of someone speaking directly to the camera; the film is shot almost exclusively from Clarice's eye level, or even a little below; the indoor scenes are cramped, bringing the camera in even closer to the actors and continuing the feeling of being right inside the story. The most important scenes in the film are long stretches of dialogue between Clarice and Lecter, yet these scenes never drag because of Demme's use of the camera, and his careful examination of Hopkins and Foster's facial expressions, capturing not just what they're saying but — most notably with Foster — what she's not saying. Establishing from the start of the film that we're seeing most of the film's events through Clarice's eyes, Demme then lets us see what she sees, no matter how painful. How fascinating and horrible it is for us to examine the bulletin board in Crawford's office, with its graphic photos of Bill's victims — how uncomfortable we are when a roomful of cops look us over and dismiss us as a mere girl. By the time Clarice finds herself in Buffalo Bill's lair, we're so inside her head that it's us down there with him, too. And when the ending finally comes, it's almost as if we caught the killer ourselves.

Now that's a good movie.


— Dawn Taylor

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