Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Silence of the Lambs"

The Silence of the Lambs
Jonathan Demme, 1991

Prior Contact: I saw this in the theater on its original release with a girlfriend of the moment. I recall thinking it was a well-made movie. I also remember pretending to find it more scary than it really was, for purposes of huddling closer to my date.

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I once went to a movie theater and saw three straight previews for movies about serial killers. This got me thinking about the overrepresentation of psychopaths in our literature. Novelists and directors love the multiple murderer because he comes with built-in suspense: he must be caught before he claims another victim! Also, he is obviously pretty messed up, so it's just plausible that he might try to mess with the heads of the investigator, leaving strange codes or sending cryptic messages for the detective and the reader or watcher to puzzle out.

But while serial killers do exist, I am happy to report that they are extremely rare, and I've come to find their abundance in the world of movies kind of obnoxious. It promotes the idea that there are all sorts of people out there who will kill you, a total stranger, just because they're crazy, and that's scary stuff. It makes you a little more suspicious and a little more cautious, and makes the world of your fellow human beings a little more terrifying than it needs to be.

As the genre goes, though, Silence of the Lambs is suburbly crafted. Its music, sets, and pacing are all immaculate. And it of course creates the very vivid character of Hannibal Lector, whose name you and I remember, and the fairly vivid character of the FBI agent played by Jodie Foster, Clarise something. Both acting performances are terrific.

[spoilers start around here]

Clarise is an unusually believeable and well-realized character, but it's Hannibal the Cannibal who dominates the popular imagination. Well, he's a cannibal. He is larger than life. Honestly, on a second watching, he's probably a little TOO larger than life. His ability to manipulate others is unrealistically superhuman, and his escape from an over-the-top level of physical confinement combines the mad skillz of Houdini with the sheer strength of The Hulk, not to mention Martha Stewart's penchant for planning ahead and Wynton Marsalis' knack for improvisation. Also, the luck of five angels. Which is to say, he's not a very realistic character. He's more of a cartoon demon, a deeply ugly yet strangely jolly notion of what the most dangerous possible human being could be. If he wasn't so spooky, we'd notice that he's preposterous.

Speaking of preposterous, the climax scene is kind of silly too. After much crashing around in the killer's vast basement -- really, he's got enough room for a modest subterranian town down there -- the bad guy hangs out and watches Clarise through night vision goggles as she staggers about, blind and helpless. Then he follows around for awhile until he makes enough noise that she can figure out where he is, and plug him. The first time you see this, the sheer suspense keeps you from thinking too hard about it. The second time, it's no different from those adventure movies where the hero charges unscathed into machine gun fire. The successful ending is less satisfying because we know that in something more resembling the real world the hero, or Clarise, would be one seriously dead duck.

Plot: A young FBI cadet is sent to solicit a jailed serial killer's advice on how to catch another serial killer (did somebody just say "preposterous"?). They develop a combatitive relationship with strange overtones of mutual respect, yadda yadda yadda. Eventually, serial killer #1 escapes and serial killer #2 gets plugged by the FBI agent, who finds him through her smarts, pluck, hard work, and extraordinary blind luck (she knocks on his front door while looking for someone else). The movie ends with an annoying minor character about to be tortured and killed, which we are encouraged to find amusing.

Visuals: Very nicely filmed. There's a famous scene that cuts back and forth between the interior and exterior of a house, except eventually we understand that they are two different houses. This is generally considered a clever trick; personally, I find it a little annoying.

Dialog: It's a great script. Pretty much every line does double or even triple duty of advancing the plot, developing the character, and/or keeping the impeccable pacing right on track.

Prognosis: It's scary, it's gory. It's more an exquisitely crafted entertainment than it is a meaningful work of art. If you like you a good police procedural, you might love it. But it's not really a must-see.


mysterymoor said...

I only watched this film recently. I was watching one of the final scene (the one with the goggles) in the dark in my room when my mum opened the door and I let out a massive scream :(

Hope you're ok Michael :)

Elizabeth said...

I'm going to watch "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" tomorrow instead. Much more my speed. Thanks for the review, though - another movie I felt vaguely compelled to watch eventually, just because it's so famous, and now do not have to because of your detailed and insightful commentary. I can fake it with the best of them at this point.

IamSusie said...

I think that you forget what an original this movie was when it came out. The plot turns and the terrifying scenes seem trite because this film has been copied so much it all seems like a cliche. All those movies about serial killers exist today because of the success of this particular film. I don't find it scary anymore, but boy-oh-boy did I ever when I saw it back then in the theater!

Aviatrix said...

I watched this movie on a tiny black and white TV with only rabbit ears on the set, no roof antenna, and quite far from the broadcast antenna. During any scene in the shadows, most of the visuals were left to my imagination. I'm not sure if it was scarier or less scary that way, but I did miss a lot of the finer points.

Michael5000 said...

@IamSusie: I'm skeptical. Serial movies go back at least to the 1920s. Fritz Lang's "M", from 1931, is an earlyish one I covered for this project.

You are certainly right that other movies have tried to cash in on the success of the Silence of the Lambs formula. But having said that, I don't think that Silence introduced many new ideas or techniques to suspense movies -- it just put together existing techniques with a good deal of craft. I think. Am I missing something specific?

IamSusie said...

Of course the serial killer topic isn't new, but this was a mainstream box office smash that we hadn't seen in a serial killer movie in a long time. I'm thinking about the icky gore and the exceptionally disgusting murders in a mainstream movie, not b-movie horror.

Also, Jodie Foster handles the sexual politics aspect of her part really well. That was a newer handling of that theme at the time, but now, the woman in an all male career is a bit trite and often isn't done so well. And, Anthony Hopkins' portrayal is iconic and it really is a terrific performance, even if it seems silly today. Movies like this with plot twists and shock-value don't really hold up to multiple viewings.

All that said, I looked up the movie and my pick for best movie of the year in 1991 was Beauty and the Beast.

Michael5000 said...

@Iam: Good points. And your last sentence cracked me up.

sister jen said...

I don't know much about serial killer films (though "M" is certainly a very good film--excellent use of sound--and lack of sound)--but this conversation made me think of The Eyes of Laura Mars, a 70s outing in which--spoiler alert--the cop/lover turns out to be da bad guy. And the scene of him crashing in through the window is fabulous. And, it's Tommy Lee Jones (fabulous enough), young (even more fabulous), and in a turtleneck and overcoat--priceless!

Anonymous said...

this movie is in the top20 of all time ratings - http://www.movieseveryoneshouldsee.com/the-silence-of-the-lambs-1991/