From this first shot, we see former psychiatrist Dr. Lecter standing in the middle of his cell, behind a wall of Plexiglas, staring straight into the camera like an all-knowing, all-seeing beast. Lecter is a genius who arrogantly engages with the likes of regular people, yet behind his silver tongue is a mind so dark we can’t even begin to imagine. In spite of his history of killing people and then eating his victims, giving him his nickname “Hannibal the Cannibal”, we are still drawn to Lecter in a grotesque manner of awe. His way with words and his incredible insight into the human mind astounds us, all the while the knowledge of what he really is eating at the back of our brains. Through Hopkin’s finest performance we are presented with this villain, a most memorable serial killer.
Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs has become a classic and a critically acclaimed masterpiece not through the use of cheap thrills, but through a deep engagement in the psychology of fear, and an understanding of human relations. Any lesser director could easily have butchered the source material, yet Demme manages to masterfully craft a tense and terrifying thriller that features some of the finest performances of the decade. The focus of the film is on Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a young, intelligent FBI trainee. Following a series of murders by a disturbed psychopath known as “Buffalo Bill”, a man who keeps his victims in a pit in his basement before skinning them, Jack Crawford of the FBI (Scott Glenn) sends Clarice to question Dr. Lecter in an attempt to throw him off his guard, and hopefully allowing Lecter to lend some insight into the process of Buffalo Bill.
The characters and their interactions are all stylistically explored through excellent camera work by Demme and his crew. Many characters stare directly into the camera when speaking, giving us the first-person perspective that allows us to more rapidly associate with Clarice, while we never see her speak to us with the same direct gaze. Dr. Lecter also stares straight into the eyes and hearts of viewers as he articulates upon the actions he has carried out that we grow to see as pure evil. Demme also plays with the audience's minds by subtly satirizing the use of specific colors or motifs, for example the almost perverse contrast between the red, white, and blue on the celebratory cake at the end, matched with the red, white, and blue banners wrapped around the body Lecter hangs on a cage for the police to find.
The Silence of the Lambs lives in a world that most horror films could never occupy. It expertly blends fear and thrills through a compelling story and incredible acting. Jodie Foster is courageous as Clarice Starling, yet we hear a dark past behind the soft accent she tries so hard to mask. Ted Levine creates a detestable psychopath we all but pray for the death of; his Buffalo Bill being a horrific character we find living out dark fantasies in a basement. Last but not least this film displays one of Anthony Hopkins’ finest performances of his career, gifting us with a new vision of evil that we can’t help but be attracted to the glossing of our sheer terror in his charming malice. The film’s focus on Clarice Starling is maximized through her interactions with Hannibal Lecter and a depth of character that exceeds the thrill of the film. Combining these outstanding performances with a marvelous script by Ted Tally and a wonderfully fitting soundtrack, Jonathan Demme carved out a place in cinema history for The Silence of the Lambs.