Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs opens with Clarice Starling running through the woods on FBI training. She struggles up a hill, and, out of breath, runs past a tree with signs nailed to it saying “Hurt. Agony. Pain. Love it.” Within seconds the film has suggested one of its most important themes – the blurring of the distinction between pleasure and pain.
The key to the story’s success is that its characters are never two dimensional. The “baddies” are never understood by their crimes alone, and the “goodies” are flawed, meaning that judgement is never easy. Hannibal Lecter is a gentleman as well as a convicted murderer and cannibal, and has a surprising capacity for feeling alongside a horrifyingly disturbing penchant for torture. As we grow closer to him as viewers and begin to like him, we forget that he is a highly dangerous criminal, right up until the awful scenes of his escape from the Tennessee courthouse. Lulled in to a false sense of security much like the officers who handle him, we are caught between trust and loathing, faced with a man as well as a monster. Buffalo Bill is less likeable yet only because he is a serial killer at large, rather than a voice behind a glass wall. And even then we are made witness to his private rituals, scenes that the FBI and his captives don’t see, meaning that we understand his motives more than others.
With some brilliant cinematography from Tak Fujimoto and a dramatic score from Howard Shore, the film does well to translate the atmosphere of the book. Seeing Lecter through the bullet proof screen and then through the bars of his temporary prison is a clever contrast, and the focus on eyes emphasises the overall desperation for secrets and trust that characterises both the FBI and the criminals. On close ups, having Jodie Foster look slightly off camera and all the other actors straight on, subtly highlights the fact that most of the film is from Clarice’s point of view and that others struggle to know her intimately. When she finally confides in Lecter and tells him about her childhood and the lambs, she looks straight into the camera for one of the first times, and this adds to the importance of the event.
The lead actors are brilliant and capture opposites perfectly. Anthony Hopkins switches between good man and psychopath with uncanny ease, and Jodie Foster plays Starling with both naivety and bravery. Ted Levine is truly terrifying, and the supporting cast is superb. Anthony Heald is satisfactorily slimy as Chilton, and Scott Glenn provides the right amount of chemistry between himself and Foster.
Overall the pacing, dialogue and acting all work to make the film a brilliant example of the thriller going further. Far from a flat detective murder mystery, The Silence of the Lambs deals with deeper issues and themes in an impressive way. It uses symbols and inspired shots to suggest further meaning, and yet never strays too far from its basic story, which is of a young FBI agent investigating a murder case. It’s this careful balance between simplicity and complexity which makes the film such a classic.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★★