Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins will likely be forever associated with their roles in this bone-chilling masterpiece, based on the novel by Thomas Harris and directed by Jonathan Demme. FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) is sent by her supervisor (Scott Glenn) to interview ferociously intelligent serial killer Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lechter (Hopkins) at his cell in a Maryland mental hospital. The FBI hopes Lechter can provide insight into the mind of killer-at-large, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), whose current abductee happens to be the daughter of a senator. Intrigued by Clairice, Lechter demands information about her personal life and in exchange for clues, and the two begin to form a strangely intimate connection, with a girl's life hanging in the balance. Starling is gradually revealed as a woman struggling out of her own darkness, bound to aid the dysfunctional males around her on their own paths of transformation, liberation, and destruction. This is a film of brilliant and disturbing beauty that transcends its B-movie origins (though it does honor them with a cameo appearance by Roger Corman). Its enduring influence has led to a slew of similarly dark-toned serial killer films, and a sequel, HANNIBAL (2001).
The Silence of the Lambs is a psychological thriller of the highest order, and well deserving of the unusual Oscar nod for Best Picture, never before bestowed upon a film like this. Before or since, action/horror has never been done so well or so cerebrally.
The film belongs to Jodie Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as serial killer Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lechter. Both are riveting onscreen, he the embodiment of cool, calm, confident evil, and she personifying drive and intelligence as well as fear and the bravery to overcome it -- and their sparring is the stuff legendary films are made of.
Lechter, an insane psychiatrist imprisoned for years under ultramaximum security, is "a monster... so rare to capture one alive," says Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), head of the asylum where Lechter is held. Rules for dealing with him abound, from not passing him anything other than soft paper (no metal objects, please) to not telling him anything personal lest he get inside your head. But deal with him Clarice must, as she is sent under false pretenses by her "guru," Special Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), to enlist Lechter's help in finding a serial killer called Buffalo Bill before he kills again.
Clarice, a woman doing a "man's job," is almost as much an anomaly as Lechter. (One moment early in the film illustrates her position perfectly, as she gets into an elevator at the academy, one tiny woman surrounded by huge guys towering over her and glancing down at her, amused by her presence.) Chilton's first thought is to hit on her; Crawford uses her, embarrasses her if it's convenient for him, and excludes her from FBI business she should be in on. When he acts dismissive of her in front of a bunch of small-town police and apologizes later in private, saying it doesn't matter, she calls him on it. "It matters, sir. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters." Foster is brilliant as a woman perhaps overcompensating for being poor, a "rube," and female. Like most women, she has to do twice the work twice as well to get half the recognition.
On top of the excellent performances, a clever, nonstop plot and devious touches from director Jonathan Demme -- like a cameo by Roger Corman, acknowledging the film's B-movie roots, and atmosphere like the copy of Bon Appetit in Lechter's cell -- make The Silence of the Lambs one of my favorite films.
This movie won Oscars for Best Picture; Director (Jonathan Demme); Actor (Anthony Hopkins); Actress (Jodie Foster); and Adapted Screenplay