NOTE: Jonathan Demme passed away on April 26, 2017, and this review is dedicated to his memory.
In the history of the Academy Awards only three films have managed to sweep up the Big Five, and the most recent one to hold such a distinction is none other than Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. It was at the point where Demme was making a name for himself through the comedy films Melvin and Howard and Something Wild or documentaries such as Stop Making Sense. Within the many years that have come by, The Silence of the Lambs has already become widely seen as Demme’s best known film together with the most widely celebrated cinematic portrayal of Hannibal Lecter – for good reason. The greatest joy that Demme presents in The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t come from the consequence of event but how it works its way into one’s mind the way Hannibal Lecter finds his way under another’s skin just as the very best thrillers do just as The Silence of the Lambs is indeed deserving of every bit of its own reputation as one of the best films of its own period.
Jodie Foster stars as Clarice Starling in the second cinematic adaptation of a Thomas Harris novel after Michael Mann’s Manhunter. In this version, Hannibal Lecter is played by Anthony Hopkins and has also gone down as the most famous portrait of the character on film, and he reprises the role for a sequel, Hannibal and a prequel, Red Dragon. Among the first things that grab one’s attention about The Silence of the Lambs is the performances of these two. It’s easy enough to talk about what Hannibal Lecter as a character, leaves behind for the film’s own benefit, but Clarice Starling as she treks through the investigation embodies all the best qualities of a strong female protagonist. She’s brave, although never stoic because she shows a desire to learn more as the case keeps on fascinating her. Demme’s focus on her growth was always something that left a great impact on me from the first day I’ve watched The Silence of the Lambs and the case study it presents is a helpful one especially in forming something more compelling on a psychological level.
As shown through Starling’s own growth as a woman there comes another thing about Jonathan Demme’s films that always struck me as one of his strongest feats as a filmmaker when working on narrative features. It’s present in how he directs his own female characters, no matter what sort of film they are, whether it be a comedy or a thriller: there’s always something that fascinates me about how he directs his actresses as they play such characters. But right there we found so much wonder arising in how it helps in distinguishing The Silence of the Lambs as a psychological exercise that creates all of the most intense moments presented in the film. Demme presents Starling as a figure whose traumas had silenced her (coming forth towards the film and source material’s titling), now to break free of this repression to become who she is, and there comes forth a profile that lent my own self a greater attachment to her character.
This isn’t so much a film about Hannibal Lecter, yet his appearance is crucial to the film’s most exciting moments. As portrayed by Hannibal Lecter, there’s a lingering presence he leaves behind which helps in elevating the film’s own sense of dread as Starling delves further into the investigation. It would be easy for one to say that these moments are easily the very best parts of the film because there was never a presence that defined The Silence of the Lambs the same way that Hannibal Lecter’s has done so, and it wasn’t simply because of the performance Hopkins gives in this role, but its cleverness had found itself rising within how Ted Tally has written him. Lecter himself is a man of murderous qualities but his incredible intelligence sets the film in motion through a lingering dread that comes by. He’s an unpredictable figure who works his way into one’s skin, but he’s never the true “antagonist” of the picture in spite of the fear he instills: rather instead his significance to the film can be found within the traumas of himself and Starling put together.
It also catches me how brisk the movement of The Silence of the Lambs is within every new viewing, but it helps in putting oneself within the moment. Whether we look at a scene like Hannibal Lecter’s own escape or the famous night vision sequence, Demme’s cheekiness can be felt within how it blends a sense of politeness inside Lecter’s character and then we have its more violent sequences such as his own escape that create a feeling of deceit, one that was only set to lead oneself into something greater as an experiment in suspense. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography together with Howard Shore’s score only help in creating the feeling of wonder and curiosity with where the investigation will lead Starling based on what knowledge Lecter is able to present to the table, but it soon turns the other way around. Demme doesn’t feel a specific need to create a terrifying figure in order to create a doomed presence, but rather instead it was all based on how other people try to understand another psychology contrasting with what is actually happening.
I thought to myself upon my first viewing of The Silence of the Lambs that what has come by on Demme’s end was something so rich in how it experiments with the concept of duality. Lecter doesn’t need to follow Clarice around in order to allow his looming presence to create the sense of dread that we are left with here, but that’s the greatest joy about The Silence of the Lambs: the film isn’t a story about finding the killer but rather instead what happens upon the notion one knows every facet of our own psyche. This film isn’t one about Hannibal Lecter and how he guides Clarice Starling to finding Buffalo Bill, but how Clarice is a woman who finds herself breaking free of the trauma as Lecter stays within her head. It’s more than just a great psychological thriller one witnesses with The Silence of the Lambs, rather instead a feeling of repressed fear as it finds itself unleashed when something works its way through every facet of one’s thought process. On that note, Demme was a great filmmaker, and he will most certainly be missed.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via MGM/UA.
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Screenplay by Ted Tally, from the novel by Thomas Harris
Produced by Kenneth Utt, Edward Saxon, Ron Bozman
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine
Release Year: 1991
Running Time: 118 minutes