When Silence of the Lambs was released it created a mighty stir, going on to win five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Only two other films have achieved that milestone (It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—cross-reference below).
Seeing the film again just over three decades later offers an opportunity to reflect: Just why was this, at times gruesome, production so applauded and revered?
If the story is weak, it is almost always game over for any sort of award (save and except for musicals!). The novel by Thomas Harris was expertly moulded for the screen by Ted Tally. Essentially about two brutal serial killers (one behind bars, the other grimly plying his “trade”), what is most striking now is the not so subtle “hit-ons” by the good guys on the attractive young woman who is charged with using one monster to shut down another. Given the intervening #MeToo movement (not to mention Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, Prince Andrew, et al) this substory of blatant sexism, packs an even greater punch now than then.
Jodie Foster gives the performance of a lifetime portraying FBI Behavioural Sciences trainee, Clarice Starling. With a troubled past of her own, instead of wallowing in it, she allows it to fuel her determination to get the bastards, even if it means baring her soul to a killer who enjoyed “dining” on his victims. Similarly, Anthony Hopkins raises the bar of demons smarter than almost all of those around him. His take on Dr. (psychiatrist, of course) Hannibal Lecter is as deep and nuanced as any characterization to ever come to the screen.
With such a stellar cast, taut script and ever-capable production team, Jonathan Demme brings his vision to life by keeping the dramatic tension and pace flowing steadily forward (from ugly collages to add scope to some of the horrendous murders, to calls for eyes-only shots on screen—deftly captured by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto—to letting his principals largely have a free rein while keeping those around them on a tight leash).
Howard Shore’s appropriately eerie score is always at one with the narrative; if only the high strings could have been more pitch perfect.
Still in 2022, this is not a film for the faint of heart, although comforting to hope that Clarice may have finally exorcised the screaming lambs from memory. JWR