The Silence of the Lambs – 5 stars

My son is headed off with his pals to see The Silence of the Lambs tonight, courtesy of AMC theaters’ occasional screenings of older films. I saw it with him a few weeks back and I think he’s looking forward to watching it again in the theater as much as witnessing the reaction of his friends.

Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece is one of the few films that focuses on the serial killer but doesn’t give way to excess. What we know about Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is simple: he is locked up for eating people; he is brilliant and fascinating; and he is lethal. When a serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) starts to plague the Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia area, FBI profiler Jack Crawford (Scott Glen) sends a trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), to elicit any advice from Lecter. Starling and Lecter use each other for their own ends, engaging in a thrilling psychological dance that is one part therapy and one part mental combat; she seeks to stop Buffalo Bill while he waits for a slip-up.

The Silence of the Lambs is so well-paced and taut that on occasion, you are near-breathless. There is only one pause in the film’s very serious, unrelenting tone (when Starling is “hit on” by two geek entomologists with whom she is consulting). The pressure is not only from Lecter and Buffalo Bill, but from Starling’s lack of experience, harrowing childhood, and even her gender and diminutive physicality.  The odds seem uncomfortably stacked against her.

The exchanges between Hopkins and Foster are electrifying. You can see just how dangerous Lecter is and near curse yourself for being charmed by him. Yet, you root for the seemingly overmatched Starling, and when she stumbles, you feel the sting of her awkwardness. When Lecter so easily assesses her background and her sexual desires, it is excruciating. Yet Starling comes up to speed and achieves a plausible parity.  Levine is also expert as the tortured, frightening Buffalo Bill, and his transformation to “normal” when he is questioned is a chilling addition to this “monsters among us” story.

The picture is one of only three to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), and deservedly so.

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