Catching the Classics: The Silence of the Lambs

silence_of_the_lambs_ver2Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.

At 12 years old, I was old enough to be interested in live-action movies when The Silence of the Lambs came out, but not by any means old enough to watch an R-rated psychological thriller, at least by my parents’ reckoning. My parents watched the film when it came out on home video. I gather my mother thought it was fairly good — she always liked crime thrillers, although she was sometimes put off by gore — while my father wasn’t so fond of it. I’ve been hearing “it’s overrated” for around twenty years. But as Dad and I often disagree on films, I’ve long wondered what I would think of it myself. After all, this is a very highly-acclaimed film; it has a Best Picture win, several AFI rankings, and a top 25 spot on IMDb to its credit. It has a considerable reputation to live up to.

Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an FBI agent in training at the behavioral analysis unit at Quantico, Virginia. The bureau has been investigating a serial killer that has been dubbed “Buffalo Bill” by the media, and Starling’s boss comes up with a ploy to get more information. In a maximum security prison is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychologist who himself is also a serial killer. His insight could prove invaluable, but the director knows Lecter will never open up to a regular agent, and not if he knows he’s being approached for that purpose. So he sends Starling to interview Lecter, on the pretense that it’s to develop a profile on Lecter himself. And so begins a dual game of cat-and-mouse; one physical as the FBI attempts to track down Buffalo Bill, and one mental as Lecter attempts to get into Starling’s mind, and she his.

Starling and Lecter get all of the character development in the film, to the point where it’s almost possible to forget there are other characters at all. Foster does very well as Starling, exhibiting the mixture of confidence and vulnerability that would be expected in a trainee. She’s intelligent and take-charge, but she’s also in danger of getting in over her head. But Hopkins is unquestionably the star here, as his performance of Lecter is at once magnetic and genuinely creepy. All too often in movies and television, a criminal’s mind games seem like they’re only working on the heroes because the writers have decided that they’ll work; they aren’t convincing on their own merits. In the case of Lecter, however, it’s far easier to believe that he could unsettle those around him that deeply.

When it comes to the plot and characterization, there is a bit of difficulty in trying to consider the originality of the film. It has to be remembered that although it definitely is building off its predecessors in the genre, it’s also a film that has been built off of itself in the 22 years since its release. I’m afraid I can’t remember the title, but I once read a novel where a detective complained that nowadays every psycho in interrogation has to try out their Hannibal Lecter act. It’s true, and it means that one has to be aware that the sense of familiarity is largely because of what has come after the film.

That said, there is a distinct weakness to the film itself that isn’t a matter of recognizing its imitators. That weakness would be any part of the film where Lecter isn’t on screen. Lecter is the most dynamic character, but while he’s a villain, he’s not the villain. He’s not the target of the manhunt in this movie, and as a result there’s a split between where the movie focuses its plot and where it focuses its efforts in character development. When Lecter is not on the screen, we see Foster reacting to two-dimensional cut-outs, and performing an investigation that is no more complex than a basic police procedural. Difficulties in solving the crime are resolved as much through chance as anything, and even when Starling figures out part of the mystery, it doesn’t feel like it’s all that clever — rather than feeling like this was a difficult problem that she powered through intellectually, it feels like it was obvious and she was simply being obtuse not to figure it out sooner. Given the emphasis her meetings with Lecter put on intellect, this leads to a mild feeling of disappointment on that front. There’s a smart heroine, and a smart villain, but there is not a smart mystery here, and there needed to be.

So yes, on that measure, I’m going to have to say that the film is overrated, if only a little bit. It’s excellent on characterization, at least on its two main figures, but the crimesolving aspect is lacking. But I can certainly see where it gets a lot of its praise, especially that centered around Lecter. (Although I do have to wonder, on the side, about Entertainment Weekly ranking this the fourth scariest film of all time; there’s a difference between thrilling and scary, and this film is hardly scary. That’s not a complaint about the film, just about EW and other sources that stretch definitions too liberally.)

Rating: 4 Stars

Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.

32 thoughts on “Catching the Classics: The Silence of the Lambs

  1. It’s probably one of the few “scary” movies I can watch, but like you, I didn’t see it until I moved out of the house. I then had my baby sister over right away to watch it much to my Mom’s horror. I do love this movie and your review is great. Have you seen the new show at all? I was wondering how you feel their Hannibal stacks up to Hopkins Hannibal.
    As far as the crime is concerned, I often feel this way about thrillers. It is a struggle to make the crime as interesting as the characters. It’s also hard to make a case which is solvable given enough time. I found that this was also the biggest fault with the new tv show. Great characters, dumb or uninteresting cases. They tried to be interesting by being crazy but it just got old fast. When you start laughing at the cases and the murder scenes something is wrong. It’s sad cause the characters were brilliant!!!!

    • I didn’t check out the TV show… partly because I hadn’t seen any of the films, and didn’t want the show to affect my perception of this one, and partly because I just couldn’t see it working long-term. I’m not sure what’s behind the current fascination with trying to adapt all the major psychopath films into TV series (American Psycho is now slated for one). I assume it’s probably a belated attempt to cash in on Dexter, but how many shows of that sort do people even need? (Granted, I don’t watch Dexter either, but that’s as much due to not having Showtime as anything else.)

      I know what you mean about the crime and mystery in thrillers often not living up to the characters. My first “grown up” novels were Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple stories, so I’ve tended to be very hard on mysteries ever since because so few of them measure up.

      • It’s at the heart of the Lecter/Starling sessions though. Lecter’s solution to the riddle that is Clarice Starling is the Lambs, which makes it that much creepier when he dines on that meal.

        I will disagree with Morgan’s characterization of everyone else in this film being 2 dimensional. Certainly Jack Crawford, Dr. Chilton, Barney, and Jame Gumb are all fairly interesting characters in their own right. And as far as scary goes, well, to this day I cant see a big white van drive down the street without a shudder and a bar or 2 of “American Girl” flashing through my head.

      • No, I’m afraid I don’t find there to be enough meat to the other characters to find them interesting. Crawford, maybe, but really, the only thing he does other than be Generic FBI Boss #47 is setting up Lecter through Starling. That’s interesting, yes, but that’s all there is. Chilton’s just a two-dimensional ass. Gumb… maybe a little, but only a little. I’ve seen that character type too many times, I guess, and not just from the movies inspired by SOTL, but also the stories/events that inspired it. That’s the problem with characters based on multiple inspirations… they’re inherently derivative, and it’s sometimes hard to escape that. As for Barney, I don’t even remember who that is a week later.

        I can understand the association with the white van and see how that would be a little scary. But I was hearing about all-white box vans and kidnappings in grade school before this movie came out, so for me it’s just a common abduction trope rather than something significantly fearful in its own right.

  2. It’s undoubtedly over-rated. But it’s also excellent.

    There’s one shot, when Lector has escaped from his cage and Starling enters the room to find the policman strung-up… one of my favourites shots in movies.

  3. You missed one character that manages to be more than two dimensional and is at the center of the story, Catherine Martin. We see her as carefree singing along to the Tom Petty Song, and then she is caring and empathetic which Buffalo Bill takes advantage of. She is frightened and victimized as she tries to negotiate with the killer and discovers the finger nails and blood that are all that is left of her predecessors and finally she is clever, angry and a lot more in control when “Precious” falls into her hands. Listen to her bitch out her rescuer when she gets left in the dark. This was a well written part for a role that most people think is incidental and Brooke Smith was solid in every scene.
    The solution is smart and doesn’t rely on coincidence, it depends on listening to Lecter and translating his advice. If this is really the first time you are seeing this I suspect you will grow to appreciate more with subsequent viewings. With more Lecter we would get “Hannibal” and no one thinks that is anywhere close to this film.

    • You’re right about Catherine Martin. I should have praised the characterization for her in my review, since — for once — the abduction victim isn’t simply a living prop.

      The key moment to solving the crime is “Hey, why are we still treating the first victim as the third just because that’s the order we found her in? Maybe she was significant?” That’s not a smart mystery, that’s inept police procedure. They should have adjusted the timeline and started looking at that the moment they discovered that instead of leaving it to a rookie to figure out the painfully obvious.

  4. I did not enjoy this movie. I’ve given it 4 tries… which is only fair, because that’s how many tries I’ve given Highlander 2.

    For a long time I’d go on about how over-rated it is… but now I don’t know. I’m starting to feel like that guy that says The Beatles are over-rated, and that without them, someone else would have come along to do what they did.

    Now, I usually just point out the problems I had with it. Those problems were pacing, too many “tension building” moments that I didn’t find tense, flat characters, and the general *bored* feeling I have watching it. Once I fell asleep to it. No good thriller should ever allow sleep. And no, that try didn’t count towards the 4 total.

    But I will praise it for it’s relevance, and the many, many, many great pop-culture moments that have come from it.

    Also, I love this song:

    • I think four attempts is more than fair. Nobody can say you haven’t tried to enjoy it.

      At least you’re in good company with my father on saying it’s overrated. (And hell, I think it’s a little overrated.)

  5. Good review, though I like it quite a bit more than you I think. I suspect having seen when it came out before many of the tropes it inspired probably helps.

    I agree that the characters other than Starling and Lecter are not really fleshed out, but I don’t see that as a weakness of the film. In the end, it’s not about them and there’s not a lot of time given over to them. That said, I think the supporting actors are all strong, especially Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill.

    I did find the movie scary, most noteably the night-vision goggle scene from Gumb’s PoV. I remember seeing this in the theater with my then-girlfriend, and she gripped my arm hard enough to leave nail marks for a couple days. That kind of shot though now has been done to death now of course.

    I try not to get sucked into over-/underrated arguements because in the end it’s probably an impossible measure. I just know that it’s one of my top movies of all time, and my favorite movie of the ’90s, just ahead of Unforgiven.

    • In general I try to avoid over/underrated discussions as well… it presumes a universal rating system, which is obviously dubious. But it was part of the background in my expose to this film, so….

      You’re probably right that I would have enjoyed it more without having seen some of its spiritual descendants first. Still, my main complaint about it was mostly the crime-solving aspects not working very well.

      • Let me elaborate.

        I agree that the FBI doesn’t come across particularly well in this movie, but I don’t think they’re supposed to. I also don’t think the movie is particularly about “solving the crime”, so much as it is about the relationship between Lecter and Starling within the background of the grisly murders.

      • I’ll agree Lecter/Starling is the main point of the film, with the crime as the background. But enough time is spent on the crime that it’s important enough to do well. But as noted before, I can be pretty hard on that sort of thing.

  6. Nice take on a strong film. I dig Hopkins character here. I heard during a screening of the sequel that Hopkins walked up to a movie goer during the film, leaned over, and said “are you enjoying the film?” I liked the books Red Dragon (prequel) and SOTL by Thomas Harris.

    “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”
    – Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins),
    Silence of the Lambs (1991)

  7. Great movie. Nice review. It does seem weaker when Lecter isn’t on screen, though. And compared to the book it seems somehow flat. But taken on it’s own merits, the movie is incredible.

Join in the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s