Friday, January 23, 2015

The Silence of the Lambs (Best Picture 1991)

The Silence of the Lambs starts innocently enough, with Clarice Starling training at what we soon learn is the FBI Academy. During her work-out she is called-in by an instructor, and has to maneuver through another maze to get to his office.

It turns out that Agent Crawford has a request of her: visit a convicted serial killer in a Baltimore mental prison and hand him a survey on the behavior of serial killers. The assignment seems simple enough, but as we will see, Clarice has left one obstacle course and entered another.

Clarice heads to Baltimore and meets Dr. Chilton, head of the facility holding her interview assignment. They take an instant dislike of each other, and he leaves her alone in a huff. The man she is there to see, Dr. Hannibal Lector, was a psychiatrist (or is it psychologist?) who became a serial killer and cannibal. In a wonderfully choreographed sequence, they interview each other but are never on screen at the same time until the very end. One time in particular the camera lingers on Clarice through the protective plexi-glass of Lector's cell, and we then get his reflection in the plastic, overlaying her face. This is a creepy battle of wills, and the director films it to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible. It turns out that Lector may have knowledge of a current serial killer named "Buffalo Bill." He is called that because he skins his female victims after he kills them. His M.O. is to kidnap large women and then within a week murder them. Lector offers to help her, strongly insinuating that he knows more than he has told, but demands something in trade. Clarice is portrayed by Jodie Foster, and Lector is played by Anthony Hopkins. They are both fantastic. They are wonderful when separate, but when they share the screen they are electric.
When Clarice gets back to the FBI Academy she knows that Crawford used her. They have a quick chat about it, but Clarice is upset by it. This is just the first overt reference of people using other people in this film.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill kidnaps another victim, a woman who turns out to be a daughter of a Senator from Tennessee. Also, another body is found in a West Virginia swamp. Crawford brings Clarice with him to investigate the body. She is used again to help the FBI take jurisdiction from the local police, and she is unhappy with Crawford again. During the autopsy, however, they discover something in the victim's mouth. It turns out to be a moth larvae of a Death's-Head Moth, found only in Asia.
Clarice goes back to Lector and offers to make a deal with him if Lector can provide information that will help catch Buffalo Bill before the newest victim is murdered. Clarice asks Lector what was found in the victim's mouth, and he correctly answers a moth or butterfly, because he knows Buffalo Bill is trying to "change." This scene is the most dramatic acting of the film, as both Hopkins and Foster play off and with each other. Lector insists on "quid pro quo," facts from her for facts from him. She has no choice but to divulge personal facts slowly and painfully, facts that he gladly gobbles up. Negotiations are going well, and they have created a good "working relationship."

However, Dr. Chilton has listened in, and he spoils the deal they are working on. He contacts the Senator himself and offers Lector a move to a facility in Tennessee and a promotion for himself. Still, Clarice manages to see Lector one last time. This is where Jodie Foster tells about the screaming of the lambs, living on a livestock farm as a little girl and hearing the lambs screaming as they are being slaughtered. In return for this data, Lector tells her that Buffalo Bill kills because he "covets." As Clarice is led out of the facility by Dr. Chilton, we are shown that Chilton has lost his favorite ball-point pen. This is an ominous thing.

Clarice, ruminating on the meaning of "coveting," goes to the first victim's home. There she sees a sewing machine and dress patterns, and realizes the truth: Buffalo Bill is making a dress out of human skin! She calls Crawford to let him know, but he is in Chicago tracking down the lead that Lector provided for his removal. Crawford asks Clarice to look into any local links between their suspect and the first victim, which Clarice gladly agrees to do.

Meanwhile, in the most dramatic action scene of the film, Hannibal Lector escapes from his temporary holding cell in Tennessee. I will not spoil it for you if you haven't seen it yet, but I will say that the director does a great job of implying violence without actually showing a lot of gore. All we really see are the after-effects of his violence. For example, as Lector beats one of his guards with his own night-stick, we see no blows actually being delivered; instead, we see spurts of blood hit Lector's crisp, white t-shirt as Hopkins swings the stick down, over and over again.

While the FBI storms a home in suburban Chicago, Clarice rings a bell on a nondescript home. However, it turns out that the Chicago home is a dodge, and Clarice is actually at the killer's home. The last few minutes of the film are tense; we know that it's the killer before Clarice does, so we are waiting for Clarice to figure it out or for him to give himself away. I actually gasped when a moth flew by her and they lock eyes. Then you want to believe that Clarice will survive this encounter, but she IS in the killer's environment. We are not sure if she will remain unharmed.

The epilogue of the film is a book-end to the beginning, as we see Lector calling Clarice to congratulate her on graduating from the FBI Academy. We then see that he has set his sites on Dr. Chilton, as he plans to "have a friend for dinner."

Famously, Silence of the Lambs is only the third film in history to win all of the so-called top Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. (The others are It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.) Obviously, Jodie Foster does a fantastic job as a woman trying to make something of herself, coming from a background "one generation away from white trash." She holds the film together, not only as the beacon of light surrounded by darkness, but by being our "eyes" and "ears," coming to the cases late and not having all of the information (just like us). She is absolutely wonderful. Equally as fantastic but one-hundred times creepier is Anthony Hopkins. He is on the screen maybe half as often as Foster, but his presence is so strong that you don't realize it, or you don't care. He absolutely owns every scene he is in. The screenplay, by Ted Tally, based on the book by Thomas Harris, has no mis-steps. There are no "fake" scares, only legitimate creepy or uncomfortable situations. And for the direction, Jonathan Demme does a great job with the material. For one thing, Hopkins is always shown in extreme close-up during the interview scenes with Foster. Oddly enough, Scott Glen as Agent Crawford is also filmed in extreme close-up when he gives Clarice the interview assignment; it is odd to juxta-pose them against each other. With Crawford I think it was meant to be affectionate or friendly; with Lector it is simply disturbing. The extreme close-ups are the best example of how he controls what we see and how we see it, but also the way the camera follows the line of vision for certain characters, "making" us see what they want us to see is also fascinating.  The one complaint I would lodge is the very end, when Clarice and Crawford are both heading towards two different homes, and Demme mixes them to make us think we're seeing something we actually are not. I understand he is doing it to build suspense, but I do feel a bit cheated every time I see it.

This film has by far the grizzliest, most horrible subject matter of any Best Picture. This film is definitely not for everyone, but the overall theme of the film is Good Vs Evil. If you enjoy horror-thriller crime dramas with psychological twists, you will enjoy this film.

The Silence of the Lambs
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1991*
Produced by Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, and Ron Bozman
Directed  by Jonathan Demme
Screenplay by Ted Tally
Based on the book by Thomas Harris

This trailer is ultra-creepy, pre-Oscar winning. 

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Beauty And The Beast
The Prince Of Tides
This is one of the rare years when I have seen each of the nominees. Beauty And The Beast is the best all-around romantic comedy Disney ever made, and their first nomination for Best Picture since 1964's Mary Poppins. Bugsy is a fascinating portrayal of the man who created modern Las Vegas, with superb performances by Warren Beatty and Annette Benning. JFK is Oliver Stone's well-meaning history of the assassination of President Kennedy. And The Prince of Tides is Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte in a psychological romance based on Pat Conroy's book.

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