Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith
Director: Jonathan Demme
Summary: A fledgling FBI agent enlists a psychopath’s help in catching a serial killer
Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Hopkins)*, Actress (Foster)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Sound, Film Editing
This was only the third (and the most recent) film to win the “Big Five” at the Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay), and in the context of it vs. the other films from this year, I have to agree with that decision. The lead performances are both outstanding. The movie does a tremendous job of building up an aura around Hannibal Lecter and delivers on it with Hopkins’ performance which is cultured yet demonic and you can understand how he can get into someone’s head so effortlessly. Foster is able to strike exactly the right cord at all times playing character who is smart and driven but also vulnerable and inexperienced, and might be my favorite actress of her generation.
It also has great blocking and knows how to use the camera extremely well. We get lots of facial close-ups and POV shots, which makes it feel like the characters are directly speaking to us and staring into our soul, which works great for an intense thriller and because because of how good the two lead performers are as well with facial expressions. It also knows how to display dominance between characters effectively, and visuals really drive home to the viewer how much of an outsider Foster is as a female FBI agent trainee. While the tools the film uses are all obvious and blunt, they are nonetheless really effective and it’s baffling how it didn’t get a cinematography nomination, especially compared to some that did like The Prince of Tides.
The biggest complaint that dogged the film was from the LGBT community where there was a lot of criticism over the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Here, I didn’t have as big a problem with this aspect specifically (more just that the movie is needlessly exploitive and sleazy in general), as I thought I would, but it’s still really muddled and clumsy. The films says that “transsexuals are very passive” (which is a bizarre statement in itself) and the Buffalo Bill is “not a real transsexual, but he tries to be.” He was rejected for sexual reassignment and hates his sexual identity, but is also a neo-nazi (which doesn’t come up other than that he has swastika bedsheets and a nazi poster in his house) and he clearly doesn’t see his victims as human beings. I feel like they tried to make him some of everything and it kind of becomes jumbled and incoherent and I don’t even know exactly what to make of it. Interestingly enough, director Demme did defend the character as not transsexual, but later came to realize and lament that there weren’t very many positive portrayals of gay characters in studio films, and two years later he ended up making Philadelphia.
Regardless of all that, this is still a great movie. Silence of the Lambs is an accessible but intelligently made, tense thriller-horror film featuring some truly excellent performances.
Random Note: This is amazingly enough the second Best Picture winner that the great maker of cheap but surprisingly good films Roger Corman acted in (the first being The Godfather Part II). He also shows up in Apollo 13-all three of these films were made by directors who got their starts working under Roger Corman (Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard).