When I first saw The Silence of the Lambs I remember being struck by how utterly chilling and truly terrifying it was. The dark, intimate and sobering way the film portrayed the mutilation of victims murdered by a sadistic killer was disturbing to behold, yet remarkably engrossing at the same time. Twenty years later, it still holds up.
It is the characterizations of the killers that make the film so frightening. Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who hunts women, abducts them, starves them and then skins them is on one side being hunted by the FBI while Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and psychopathic killer enlisted by the FBI to help profile Bill is on the other side.
Both killers are evil figures driven by vastly different compulsions and desires. Buffalo Bill is a disturbed man with gender identity issues who is fashioning a “woman suit” out of the skin of his victims. Bill is demented and his crimes are grotesque, but he is a less imposing, less complex villain next to the exceptionally insane Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter is a brilliant dichotomy. Lecter is suave, intelligent and charismatic as well as evil, cruel and insane. When Foster’s FBI agent character, Clarice Starling, visits Lecter in a maximum security psychiatric hospital to obtain information about Buffalo Bill, Lecter turns the interrogation on her in what becomes a cold and cruel dissection of her life. The way in which he shares information about Buffalo Bill in exchange for Starling’s personal revelations is both sinister and ingenious. Lecter is the essence of pure evil and monstrosity and Hopkins makes the role his own in what is inarguably his best work.
Buffalo Bill almost appears like a caricature of villainy next to Lecter; a lesser foe whose pathology can be understood by the kind of childhood he suffered (he was born to an alcoholic prostitute then raised in foster care and abused by his foster parents), and by the crimes he commits. He is a man so fascinated by women that he wants to become one by sewing together a gender-altering outfit made of skin.
In contrast, Lector is cold, calculating and cannibalistic, yet he respects Starling’s intelligence, expresses genuine sympathy for the sad memories she shares from her past and develops a bond with her that arises from mutual give and take. The way he is able to manipulate and psychoanalyze Starling, understand Bill’s motivations, and then blithely reminisce about eating the liver of one of his victim’s conveys his incredible complexity as a character.
The Silence of the Lambs is a superb and smart psychological thriller that does not rely on the usual scare tactics like fake scares or gore for the sake of gore. Rather, it relies solely on creating tension by employing great cinematic techniques like point-of-view shooting (during Starling’s slow dissent to Lecter’s cell), extreme close-ups (the devilish expression on Lecter’s face when he utters the infamous and chilling line “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”), and dramatic cinematography (when Starling is in Buffalo’s Bill’s house fumbling around in the dark surrounded by mannequins and flying moths while Bill stands behind her with his arm reached out about to touch her.)
One sign of a good film is when it evokes the same feelings it did after the third, fifth, or tenth viewing as it did after the first one. I felt utter fear the first time I saw the movie and I felt utter fear this last time I watched it, and that is a sign that The Silence of the Lambs is one heck of a film.