There is a serial killer on the loose. No, not the fabled Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), but a man who goes by the name “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). His tactics involve luring in a plump young woman, capturing her and throwing her into a pit, having her starve to death, cut off some of her skin, and then dump her in a nearby river. Obviously, the FBI wants to stop him, so they send their best and brightest trainee to track him down.
Her name — yes, their best and brightest is a female, which gets some looks from the local cops — is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). She is told by a man named Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) that she should interview Dr. Lecter, a former psychiatrist who just happened to like eating his patients, and attempt to coerce him to help with the investigation. She’s a straight shooter, and after their first meeting (which is a chilling scene), it seems that her no-BS approach left an impression on the cannibal.
He doesn’t exactly help, however. He’s a man who speaks in riddles, never giving you exactly what you want but always giving you something that might help if you’re smart enough to figure it out — and if you’re able to get it out of him in the first place. He has to think you’re worthy of not being toyed with, and you also have to play his games. There’s an intense psychological battle between the two characters that takes place in this film, and it’s incredibly enjoyable just to hear them converse.
I’m not sure if we’re supposed to hate Hannibal Lecter. I certainly didn’t for most of the film, as he seemed to have most of his mind together even if he is a cannibal and gets some of the film’s bloodiest scenes. There’s something to appreciate, no matter how creepy he is, about a character as smart as this one. The way he’s written, the way he’s acted — everything about him makes you want to see more. I was drawn to him despite all of his little problems. Hopkins is the star of this film, embodying this character and stealing every scene that he’s in.
At the heart of The Silence of the Lambs is Clarice, whose gritty determination is the whole reason we get a film in the first place. She’s the character we relate to, one big break away from the career she’s wanted for years. We learn her back story through dialogue exchanges shared with Lecter, and we feel compassion for her. She’s not meant to show much emotion (that would be weakness, after all), but Foster manages to convey her emotions in a very subdued manner.
Despite this being a film where a crime must be solved, I felt that the investigation toward Buffalo Bill was far less interesting than either of the lead characters, and when Clarice and Lecter aren’t interacting with one another, our film loses energy. Once Bill gets involved in the events, it gets even creepier (Levine plays him far more out of control than Hopkins’ character is), but the few moments when Clarice isn’t interviewing Lecter get slow. Lecter’s scenes are always interesting thanks solely to Hopkins’ performance.
Even though there are a few slow parts, the slick style of director Jonathan Demme always shines through, and if it weren’t for this, there very well could have been a lot more of these dull portions. The constant close-ups, the way he creates tension from the most mundane of actions, and the way that we’re introduced to Hannibal Lecter all work toward creating a genuinely suspenseful film. The final of those, our first glimpse of the cannibalistic doctor, manages to make every scene, whether it involves the character or not, keep us on the edge of our seat just because we fear that he could appear at any moment despite being locked behind multiple security barriers.
Tension mounts and by the film’s end, we just need a release. You might be surprise to hear that the tone The Silence of the Lambs ends on is very light, but that’s just the case. After we get our conclusion, the final scene make you laugh because of how absurd the events that led to it are, and because of one piece of dialogue. It’s such a perfect line — although the writing of the film on the whole is solid — that it might just make you applaud.
But despite everything else in the film, this is an acting battle between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, as well as a psychological war between their two characters. Sure, Ted Levine is creepy and Scott Glenn is strong, but the tour de force performances from the two leads is what keeps us captivated. Without them, this is a good, if unremarkable crime drama. With them, it becomes nearly a must-see film. Sure, Hopkins is the winner, but Foster is strong as well, and definitely shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Silence of the Lambs is a good film elevated to great because of its actors. Hopkins and Foster carry this film, even though the rest of it is nothing to scoff at. This is wonderfully directed, has beautiful — if a bit claustrophobic thanks to all of those close-ups — cinematography, and has enough tension to keep you interested. Hannibal Lecter is the character that drew me in and held my attention, though, and it’s Hopkins’ performance which makes the character special.