Monday, June 6, 2011

Film Review - "The Silence of the Lambs"

Note: No real spoilers in this review, but there is some discussion of the film's ending (in very general terms) as well as some analysis of the Lecter-Starling scenes. Read on at your own risk after the jump:

In the opening scenes of “The Silence of the Lambs”, FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is running through an obstacle course. Her face is a blank mask.  Over the course of this taut thriller’s next two hours, that mask will gradually fall away. The movie is about a serial killer investigation, yes. But it’s also about Starling’s own personal journey: a journey facilitated by a homicidal cannibal of all people.

Someone is killing young women and skinning them. The murders are seemingly random, and the media has dubbed the killer “Buffalo Bill”. For help, the FBI is turning to captured serial killers in an effort to catch him. Starling is brought in to interview one of them: Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).  

All this is laid out in about ten minutes. One of the chief virtues of “The Silence of the Lambs” is its economy. It doesn’t waste time. Expository dialogue is quick and matter-of-fact, and the film also doesn’t tell what it can instead show.

Take the scene where Starling is first taken to meet Lecter. As she and the doctor walk and talk the film cuts to shot after shot of barred and fortified hallways. With these few shots (as well as the doctor’s quickly delivered precautionary instructions), the danger of Hannibal Lecter is established. This allows the remarkable scenes between the two to proceed uninterrupted.

 Starling isn’t scared. She knows she’s in no danger as long as she follows the protocol. The two are equals in intelligence and determination. But from the first exchange between them, it’s clear that Lecter has the power. What follows is a battle of wits that eventually turns into a strange twist on the teacher-student relationship.

For her part, Foster balances Starling’s toughness with just a hint of emotional vulnerability. Lecter (one of the most compelling film villains in history) soon sees this and feeds on it: forcing her to answer deeply personal questions in exchange for tidbits about Buffalo Bill. Lying is out of the question, since Lecter informs Clarice he will be able to tell. And Hopkins’s commanding performance never leaves the slightest doubt that this is true.

And yet at the same time, he respects her. He freely talks about Buffalo Bill, but refuses to lay everything out for her. It could be argued that this is all simply a game to him, but I think there’s more to it than that. Lecter’s been starved for company and attention, and now he’s met a person he can converse with on an intelligent level (and even mentor).

These scenes are fascinating on so many levels, and I could write several thousand words alone about how well-shot, well-acted, and well-written they are: such as the way the camera focuses in turn on each of their faces and the way Foster’s voice breaks as she’s talking about her father (which Lecter in turn feeds on). But I think you get the idea.

And there are other aspects of the film to discuss. Unfortunately, they're not quite as strong. The mystery of Buffalo Bill’s motivations may come as a slight surprise to those that haven’t read the book first (as I did), but even they aren’t likely to find it all that great of a payoff. It’s more of an “okay, that’s kind of interesting" type of reaction.

Without giving anything away, the ending also succumbs to a few too many horror movie cliches (including a rather inexcusable use of an idiot plot). It’s moderately effective and fairly well-executed, but not particularly original or inventive. I was much more impressed by an earlier sequence involving Bill capturing his next victim, but even that is just slightly above-average.

Still, "The Silence of the Lambs" is a very good movie even if it slightly misses the mark of true greatness. It's well worth checking out thanks to two of the best performances you're ever likely to see as well as some of the sharpest dialogue I can recall. Hopkins and Foster deserved their awards, and they alone are worth the price of admission (or in this case, taking the time to add it to your Netflix instant queue).

Grade: A-

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