The lasting influence of Jonathan Demme’s legacy is as broad and far-reaching as his palette of genre. As a proven master of drama, comedy and thriller – Demme demonstrates with The Silence of The Lambs (1991) that his stylistic choices and range of experience were perfectly suited for this landmark psychological horror.
The film stars Jodie Foster as FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, who is pulled away from the Academy to interview the infamous psychiatrist/cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in order to help pursue and capture a brutal serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). Forewarned on Lecter’s genius, monstrosity and penchant for sadistic manipulation, Starling must engage in an intellectual game of chess, allowing her vulnerabilities to be probed and her psyche to be tested in building a profile on Bill and his modus operandi. When the daughter of a senator is abducted by Bill, the clock is ticking for Starling to contend with Lecter’s mind games and ambiguous clues to save the young woman’s life.
Much has been discussed on Hopkins’ iconic portrayal of Lector. His demeanour matches that of a caged predator; relentlessly poised and calmly assured of the power he holds over anyone brave enough to engage with him, and confident of the physical and psychological devastation he can inflict without hesitation. Despite Hopkins’ often static positioning in his cell, there is never any doubt on the menace he exudes nor the feeling that he is perpetually playing with his food.
Arguably the element that has aged finest would be the character of Starling, what she represents in the realm of male-centric coercion and her influence as a tenacious and cunning detective who faces her vulnerabilities to successfully prove herself. Starling is regularly on the receiving end of unwanted male attention and judgement, as groups of men turn to stare at her as she passes, her superiors are predominantly men and Demme’s framing choices frequently remind us of her short stature in comparison to the cops, agents and criminals around her. Yet Foster’s extremely likeable performance commands and earns authority, whilst her bravery, ingenuity and intuition separate her from the ‘damsel in distress’ trope that some characters can so easily fall into.
Demme’s signature use of extreme close ups and characters speaking directly into camera perfectly lands us in Starling’s uncomfortable perspective of a leering and condescending male gaze. The use of slow pans, handheld camera and point-of-view shots lend greatly to the notion that Starling is constantly being watched, evaluated or even preyed upon, keeping the audience constantly on edge. The final set piece, in which most of the key action happens in the dark and is largely centred on the aforementioned use point-of-view shots must be one of the most nail bitingly tense climaxes in film history.
Though many high profile actors turned down the script due to its content, the film was an enormous box office success and ended up becoming only the third motion picture in history to win the “Big Five Academy Awards” (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture), as well as the first ‘horror’ film to win Best Picture. Whether or not you view this as a horror or a thriller, the suspense, discomfort of perspective and continuous overarching tension renders this as one of the most finely crafted and exhilarating milestones of cinema history.
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