Play It Again – The Silence of the Lambs

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By Simon Miraudo
July 24, 2013

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).

It’s been more than 20 years since Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture at the Oscars. Instead of heralding an age in which horror movies – or, at the very least, movies about skinsuit-crafting lotion aficionados – dominated the awards circuit, it remains a singular exception. Looking back on it now, it’s hard not to think of it in those terms. What is just so darned special about this adaptation of a Thomas Harris airport-novel that convinced all the blue-haired Academy members to hand it their highest accolade? Do they just love “Goodbye Horses” that much?

The answer can be found in the performances. Not just Anthony Hopkins‘ now-iconic turn as Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter, but also Jodie Foster as rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling. It’s her story, and Lecter just haunts it. So too does Ted Levine‘s Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, the serial killer busy collecting young, plump women and skinning them for a demented outfit to wear. Clarice is tasked by her superior, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), to interview the institutionalised Lecter as a means of getting into the mind of this other rampaging murderer. In return for pertinent information on Buffalo Bill, she must share with this cannibalistic psychiatrist tales of her own personal turmoil; each new insight seemingly feeding his appetite and ability to escape captivity. Faces are eaten. Penises are tucked. Semen is flung. “And the Oscar goes to…”

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Foster earned her second Best Actress gong as Clarice, and, in a way, it became the template for many of her performances that followed; a combination of steely determination and emotional fragility. Hopkins’ choices as Lecter may seem downright silly, yet somehow they still add up to an entirely unsettling and unusual screen creation. Even in the wake of NBC’s rather good TV series Hannibal – in which Mads Mikkelsen gives a far more understated, likeable, manipulative turn – it’s still sacrilegious to claim Hopkins should hand over the crown. There’s a reason why he won the Best Actor Oscar for just 16 minutes of screen time. Though voters couldn’t have known back in 1991, his work is for the ages.

Demme’s baroque direction inspires nausea for all the right reasons; the demonic, deep-red lighting of Lecter’s showdown with the police looks torn from Dante’s Inferno. He keeps his camera trained on Foster and Hopkins’ faces in extreme close-up, isolating them from their surroundings, and denying us knowledge of where precisely they are. Later, when Starling comes face to face with Buffalo Bill, she is forced to wander blindly in the dark, while her assailant stalks her with night vision goggles. The conversation sequences – adapted from Harris’ novel by Ted Tally – are as oppressive and dread-inspiring as the action sequences.

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Hopkins would star in two more Harris adaptations: Hannibal and Red Dragon. Both have been seemingly banished to the land of wind and ghosts. Only The Silence of the Lambs remains. There is something special about this movie (and not merely because it inspired the Australian Classification Board to invent the MA15+ rating). Has any horror movie equalled it in the past 22 years? Perhaps. But if only one super-gory flick is ever considered worthy enough for the Academy’s top prize, I’m fine with this being it.

4.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

The Silence of the Lambs is available on Quickflix.

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