The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs ate everybody’s lunch award-wise in 1992 taking home essentially every major Oscar category. A lot of people remember this movie for bringing us Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, but he’s actually only in the movie for a hair over 20 minutes. If you haven’t seen this by now, stop right here and go watch. Seriously. We’ll be here with our spoiler filled review when you come back. Everyone else keep scrolling to get our takes.

Reviewed by: Mark


Plot Synopsis

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is a female FBI trainee trying to make her way through the academy and get placed in the touted we-make-psyche-profiles-of-crazies department. She gets her first big break when she is called to administer a survey to the infamous Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The bureau is after his insight regarding a fresh set of killing perpetrated by the mysterious Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), and thinks that sending a relatively green and vulnerable recruit will be the best way to disarm Hannibal. Clarice and Hannibal strike up a rapport and leads in the case of Mr. Bill begin to unfold.

Meanwhile we are introduced to the killer through his most recent victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), daughter of a senator and fan of Tom Petty. We see her getting abducted while trying to help a disabled man load a couch into his panel van. PSA: don’t get all the way into a panel van, ever. Even if it’s your own panel van. Nothing good ever comes from panel vans.

Given the ratcheting up of tensions around this most recent kidnapping Hannibal’s profile some risks are taken and Hannibal is given myriad benefits and quality of life improvements. His cell basically changes from a sub-basement dungeon with no windows to the 5th floor of an art museum. You could say he played his cards right. In his new, less secure, cell Hannibal is able to piece together an escape plan involving hanging one guard from the rafters and stealing the face of another. Exit Hannibal, stage left.

Elsewhere in the country Clarice has been taken off the Buffalo Bill case for promising an unauthorized prison transfer. She continues to chase down some leads, having seen through the wild goose chase that he sends the other agents on. Before long her own gumshoe work leads her rather innocently to the residence of Jame Gumb, the son of the seamstress that initially employed Bill’s first victim. Upon entry into the residence she sees clues that Jame is in fact that killer and she attempts to apprehend him. He runs, cuts the power to his basement, and starts stalking the agent around in the dark wearing night vision goggles. As he cocks his gun to shoot Clarice, she hears the hammer, turns, and empties her weapon into Jame, killing him.

What the Movie Does Right

When a movie wins best actor, best actress, best picture, and best adapted screenplay there is a lot to talk about in this category. I can’t overstate the unquestionably great performances turned in by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in this one and their merit is a matter of validated historical record so I’m just going to blow right by it. That being said, not enough credit is given to Ted Levine’s villain. He is utterly captivating and strikes the perfect balance of weird that makes him unsettling. “It puts the lotion on its skin” scene is among the most iconic and terrifying serial killer scenes in film history, and that’s to say nothing of the Goodbye Horses dance sequence. I might be in the minority on this one, but I find Buffalo Bill’s screen time even more interesting than Hannibal’s.

Perhaps a function of the book it was based on, the narrative structure is unique and charming. Think for a second about how the relationship of the viewer to Hannibal Lecter. He is unquestionably an evil dude, a cannibalistic serial killer, but he is also the source of knowledge that leads directly to the senator’s daughter being saved in the nick of time. He’s helpful. He’s insightful. He never comes off bitter or mean. He is one of the few characters in the movie who actually believes in the abilities of Clarice. He’s actually kind of a good guy. Hannibal’s plot is secondary to the overall story, and frankly a lot of it could’ve been cut while still telling the story of Buffalo Bill, but it’s left in because he’s an interesting character and because it gives depth and texture to the world. I can’t recall a sub-plot quite like this one being included in any other films.

Lastly, the subtext of this movie is incredibly well realized. Yes, the story is about the FBI hunting a serial killer while trying to deal with another, but the movie is about being a woman in a masculine dominated culture. Jodie Foster’s performance is incredible in this regard… she always plays the character as strong as possible in every situation. She allows herself to cry once and it’s in a parking lot when no one is around to see her. However, regardless of how strong she acts the movie repeatedly positions her in spots where she comes off as weak. When she first meets Hannibal she is literally ejaculated on by one of the other prisoners. She is repeatedly ogled and objectified by other police officers and undercut publicly by her boss. Cinematically, she is shot in a way that makes her look shorter compared to the people around her. When she is training at the academy her entire role is just getting punched and kicked while holding the sparring pad. Yet, ultimately, she is the hero of the movie and single handedly takes down Buffalo Bill despite being spurned by the Bureau. It’s a fascinating character study and adds an incredible amount of depth even to the scenes where nothing is really happening.

What the Movie Does Wrong

The characterization of police officers in this movie is bordering on “looney tunes” level. They are comically bad at their jobs. The entire escape sequence of Hannibal Lecter is one of the least believable comedies or errors I can come up with. Sure, they needed him on the lamb for various narrative reasons (and for the sequel) but if you stop and apply real world logic to any aspect of how he got out the whole thing falls apart.

This is one of the best movies ever made, so I’m running dry on major criticisms here. That being said this is a horror movie website, and this is not an out-and-out horror movie. Notably this is in that ephemeral horrorish cousin of the genre, thriller. There is nothing particularly wrong with that (and likely got it more attention from the academy) but if you are a seasoned horror fan then your mileage may vary.

Ratings (1-10)

Story: 7.5 - There isn’t much wrong with this from a story standpoint except I think you could argue it’s a bit overlong. I love the way the script shifts focus between characters and is ultimately not even remembered for the main thrust of the narrative.

World-Building / Immersion: 9.5 - If Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill is the 3rd best character in a movie, then you’re doing pretty well. With the exception of the scene in the museum as Hannibal is escaping you have either Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, or Ted Levine on screen at all times. That is a recipe for an absolutely captivating experience.

Scare-Factor: 4 - This movie is not short on intense set pieces. When I saw this as a kid the final scene shot through Bill’s night vision goggles really got my heart pumping. Also, that initial shot of the guard strung up outside Hannibal’s cell is incredible. Any of Hannibal’s monologues, either with the Senator or with Clarice, will score high on the creep factor. Outside of those there isn’t much here will get stick with you.

Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7 - I’m inclined toward judicious lack thereof for this one, which is why it’s capped out at better than average. However, there is the scene of Hannibal taking the guys face off, the skin suit, and the use of the death’s head moth so it’s not like they did nothing.

Overall: 10 - Initially I was going to knock this down a peg just because it’s not strictly a horror movie. Then I was informed on the podcast by my two co-hosts that this is definitely in the genre and that I am a stick in the mud. This is damn near a perfect movie and is absolutely deserving of all the praise it gets. I should add it also stands up well to repeated viewings. Go watch it again if you haven’t