When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.” The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.
The following review contains a detailed analysis of the plot, so be forewarned.
Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) recruits Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) for this job without telling her why: he wants to get Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help them profile Buffalo Bill so they can catch the killer before he acts again. Even before she can leave Quantico for Baltimore, they are already too late. Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) lures young Catharine Martin (Brooke Smith) into his van and abducts her, putting her down in an empty well in his basement and forcing her to use lotion to soften her skin while his little toy poodle Precious looks on. Sitting at a sewing machine, surrounded by rare moths, he sews his collected skin together.
In Baltimore, Clarice meets Lecter’s prison psychiatrist, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), who has taken to using subtle torture to try to make a name from Lecter, who was at one time himself a brilliant psychologist. Given the antagonism between the two, she requests to see Lecter alone. As she walks up the corridor to the special cell, one of the other inmates, Miggs, whispers obscene things to her. In his cell, protected by glass, he is prohibited from contact with anything that might be used as a weapon or to escape, even pens, although he is allowed pencils to complete intricate drawings. Clarice asks him about an especially detailed drawing of Venice and he remarks that it is his only way of having a view of the outside world. Fascinated by her, he picks out her perfume and tries to get inside her mind without revealing anything of himself. Frustrated, he dismisses her, but on the way out, Miggs throws a ball of come at her and this upsets Lecter who yells at her to come back. He tells her to find an old patient of his, giving a few verbal hints and a fake name.
Clarice unravels his clues and follows them to a self storage garage outside Baltimore with an old car that contains a mannequin and a jar containing the head of Lecter’s former patient. She revisits Lecter and he reveals that he did not kill the man, but that it is the world of a serial killer in the making. Using a quid pro quo dialogue, he reveals bits and pieces while learning of Clarice’s youth, including the death of her father and her brief time on a sheep ranch in Montana staying with cousins afterward.
Another body is found and Clarice accompanies Crawford to examine the body. Although he appears to be playing psychological games with her, Clarice stands up for herself and earns the fair treatment she deserves. While examining the body, they find the pupa of moth wedged inside the girl’s mouth. The investigation leads Clarice to university specialists who tell her that the pupa is a rare species of Asian moth.
Back in Quantico, she sees a television report that Senator Ruth Martin’s (Diane Baker) daughter has been kidnapped by Buffalo Bill. Martin attempts to humanize her daughter to the killer by showing pictures of the girl growing up and referring to her over and over by her name: Catherine. Oblivious to the broadcast, Bill continues to sew the skin of his victims together.
Promising Lecter a transfer away from Dr. Chilton, Clarice tells him that if he can help them find Buffalo Bill, he will even be allowed some time on a beach. Recording the conversation, Dr. Chilton checks with Senator Martin and discovers that the FBI has lied to Lecter and no such deal is in place. He reveals this to his patient and brokers his own deal with Martin. During his conversation with Hannibal, who is restricted with a straight jacket and face plate, Chilton leaves his pen lying in the office, then leaves Lecter to his assistant with the instruction to clean him up and get him ready for transfer. In Memphis, Tennessee, Lecter is taken off the plane, but when Chilton goes to sign his release, he can no longer find his pen. Lecter watches him anxiously until a guard offers a pen instead.
Introduced to the Senator, Lecter gives her false information as to the identity of Catherine’s abductor and is then escorted to a special cell on an isolated floor of the courthouse. Clarice comes to see him, even though it is no longer her case, to try to find out why he gave the Senator false information and to keep trying to get the real killer’s name. Playing quid pro quo again, he gets her to reveal that the reason she ran away from the ranch in Montana was that she was awakened by screaming because the spring lambs were being slaughtered. Appalled, she opened the pen to let them go, but they wouldn’t leave, so she took one lamb and ran away, getting caught several miles from the ranch. Lecter gets her to admit that she sometimes still has nightmares about the screaming of the lambs. As Chilton and the officers escort her out, Lecter gives her back her case file and tells her that all she needs to know is there. When the guards deliver Lecter his dinner, they handcuff him to the bars of his cage, but using components from Chilton’s pen, he unlocks his cuff and kills the two guards, cleverly making his escape.
Piecing together bits of what Lecter has given her, she realizes that the killer might live close to the first victim because in the beginning these killers covet those who are nearby, that they see every day. With this knowledge, she goes to visit the family of the first victim and stumbles upon the killer. I won’t revel the ending, even though it is very exciting.
Only the third film to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay, it is also the first horror film to be named Best Picture. All five awards are richly deserved.
This 1991 film truly established Jonathan Demme as a master of the art of film directing and in The Silence of the Lambs he has created a masterpiece that even Alfred Hitchcock would have loved. The airtight script by Ted Tally, based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, melds several genres in a stew that is absolutely compelling. A friend of Harris, Tally’s first draft was accepted by Demme and the film went into production with very little revision. It is virtually unheard of in the film industry for a script to be so well written is taken on a first draft basis.
Murder mystery, detective story, horror, and psychological drama all work together under Demme’s expert hand. Running just under two hours, the story is so gripping that it is extremely difficult to pull oneself away. The music by Howard Shore feels invisible, yet it is coldly calculated to lead the viewer steadily and deeply into the grisly scenario. Shore said of his score, “I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie.” Bullseye.
Demme’s use of close-ups in the intense dialogue between Starling and Lecter, especially with the camera moving ever so slowly in tighter and tighter, creates such a feeling of intimacy and gripping suspense as to make it palpable. In addition, the movie is a prime example of brilliant editing, each scene cut perfectly for the story.
The acting is pure gold. This is by far Jodie Foster’s best performance in a long and distinguished career and she earned her Oscar by imbuing Clarice Starling with such a rich and subtle layering of character that she was completely believable and utterly compelling. Opposite her, Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal with such brilliance, both believably intelligent far beyond most people and yet eerily spooky in his madness, one moment perfect British manner, one moment biting someone’s nose off. Whenever he is present, a scene is elevated to the deepest level of psychological complication. Great acting! The supporting cast all do their jobs, each actor invested in their little part of the tapestry.
I’ve now seen this movie six times and each time I still find every single moment of it to be utterly compelling. It stands the test of time with no effort at all and must be considered deep within anyone’s list of the Top 100 films of all time.
Adults only, this is a must-see movie!!!