Film Review: Silence of the Lambs

Very few horror films, and I’d consider Silence of the Lambs in that category (in spite of the book it was based on being credited as having killed the horror genre of novels), have won Academy Awards for Best Picture, never mind the level of sweep that Silence of the Lambs took. So, when I was going for a horror film for Halloween, I decided that Silence of the Lambs was the one to go with, as the last time I’d watched it was on a fairly small TV, and on DVD. Since then it’s gotten a 4K release (which is what I watched), and I have a larger TV to watch it on (and also better speakers), so I felt this was a good time to give it a real re-appraisal.

Also since my last viewing, I’d seen both Manhunter and Red Dragon – so I came to this with several other directors’ (and another actor’s) takes on Hannibal Lecter as an antagonist. This made for an interesting situation to come back to the work that made this particular man-eating serial killer part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Probably my biggest takeaway from the film is how director Johnathan Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto used the canvas of the screen. So many of the dialog scenes between Anthony Hopkins as Lector and Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling are dominated by incredibly tight close-up shots on the two actors’ faces, completely filling the screen. When I watched the film for the first time, I saw it on a fairly small TV set (probably about 28″), and when I wasn’t necessarily watching many films in theaters at that time, so the impact of those shots hit, but not as hard.

Extreme close up of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

Over the years since then, in addition to having a larger set, I’ve watched more movies on the big screen since then, so I can extrapolate from there on the emotional impact of seeing these close-ups on a screen that’s almost 1+1/2 – 2 stories tall. It puts you in a position to have this sense of Lecter’s intensity bearing down on you, contrasted with the shots of Starling struggling under that intensity – heightening the sense of an emotional struggle between the two – not necessarily one of hostility (like Lecter and Will Graham), but almost rivalry.

Starling seeks to prove herself worthy in the misogynist, patriarchal environment of the FBI academy, she also seeks to prove herself worthy of Lecter to get the information that’s needed to save Buffalo Bill’s latest victim. Lecter, while he taunts Clarice over the fate of the last person who sought to test him, also tests her, seeking to see if she’s an intellectual equal (or prospective equal), compared to the figures around him that he holds in contempt (like Dr. Chilton). I don’t think that Lecter’s call to Starling’s graduation is necessarily one that implies a romantic relationship between the two – but more that Lector is acknowledging Starling as someone who he views as an equal, but also one who he doesn’t seek to confront directly so long as she doesn’t become a threat to him (similarly being sufficiently satisfied with his revenge against Will Graham through Francis Dolarhyde in the events of Red Dragon).

I bring all this up, because, while I haven’t seen Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (nor the Hannibal TV series), the other takes on Lecter never really got this same intensity. For all the efforts that Brett Ratner took to recreate the sets of Silence of the Lambs and bring back as much of the cast as possible to evoke the legacy of this film, but Ratner is never quite able to use the camera to grab that same level of intensity that Demme did. With Michael Mann and Manhunter, which came first, this level of close-up camera work is generally not in Mann’s palette – it doesn’t fit with his more naturalistic approach to filmmaking.

It makes Silence of the Lambs a film that truly stands on its own in the legacy of adaptations of the Hannibal Lecter stories, and which re-defined horror cinema the same way its source material did for horror novels.

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