Jason. Freddie Kreuger. Chucky. Movie monsters are the stuff of childhood nightmares. Some of these monsters linger long inside our memories, long after the celluloid flicker. Especially those that we might actually encounter. Enter Hannibal.
The best movie of 1991 was Jonathan Demme’s masterful frightfest, Silence of the Lambs. The film is a master class in terror and suspense. While there is gore, this film isn’t a typical slasher, which makes it all the more psychologically disturbing and effective, a fascinating mashup of the horror/suspense/thriller genres. The movie centers around the intertwined lives of Clarice Starling, a rookie FBI trainee and the psychopath Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lechter, who is both serial killer AND psychologist, i.e. The combination from hell. This unlikely duo team up to track down a budding killer on the loose named Buffalo Bill.
From the opening shot, we are immediately transported into the heart of this film. The movie opens with petite Clarice running alone through the woods, tackling an obstacle course full throttle at FBI headquarters. A sign that reads ‘Hurt-Agony-Pain-Love it’ is tacked to a tree. (A foreshadowing?) Surely, the woods are no place for a woman to be alone. And yet there she is, panting and clawing her way through every challenge that presents itself, undeterred. This is a woman that doesn’t scare easily.
Clarice’s mettle is tested when she comes face-to-face with Hannibal to enlist his help creating a psychological profile of Buffalo Bill. Their tense initial meeting is cleverly set up through shaky shots of Clarice navigating red-lit and dim cavernous surroundings that lead to his locked maximum security cell. Upon entry, she is given a list of rules for interacting with him. After all, he hasn’t seen a woman in 7 years. Among them, don’t tell him anything personal. “Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal in your head,” the doctor warns. Right off the bat, Clarice breaks protocol, engaging him in a fascinating and revealing game of quid pro quo; Two master strategists playing mental chess.
Hannibal, literally in Clarice’s head.
The first shot of Hannibal is jarring; He stands unnaturally upright in his cell with eyes that seem vacant yet see clear through Clarice’s soul. Offended that the FBI has sent him an inexperienced trainee, defiant Lechter instead chooses to do an assessment of Starling. “Good nutrition’s given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you… all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars… while you could only dream of getting out… getting anywhere… getting all the way to the FBI…” Spot on. Terrifying. A true predator, already preying on Sterling’s insecurities and trying his best to terrify the young recruit, reminding her what happened when he was last tested – “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”. One of the film’s most enduring lines. Hannibal is quick to discover that Starling is far from average. She is no damsel in distress. Not anymore.
Clarice Starling is a curious movie character. She seemingly encounters sexism at every turn, from psychiatrists to law officials to criminals, and is endlessly doubted and unrelentingly propositioned. She often appears unfazed by the treatment she receives in the male-dominated worlds she calls home, mostly ignoring the white noise. Though on occasion, she reprimands. “I graduated from UVA, doctor. It’s not a charm school.” When her superior makes a misogynistic comment to an officer, she lets her disappointment show. “It matters. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.” Even to her dream employer, she doesn’t retract and holds him accountable for his words. She fundamentally believes in fairness and justice at any cost. This character is sheer feminism on display, surprising for 1991. By today’s standards, Starling remains a hero for females everywhere. She never runs from her fear, choosing to face it head on, and is steadfast and clever – steps ahead while the males around her scratch their heads. Like Lechter, she is also in a societal cage of sorts, aching to break out. While the shots emphasize her as out of her league and diminutive, she is tall within. What others see as her disadvantage is her strength. She is one of cinema’s greatest protagonists and heroines, played to perfection by Jodie Foster.
As Lechter, Anthony Hopkins delivers one of the most memorable villains in movie history. The chemistry between these two characters and actors is mesmerizing and hypnotic. There is a strange intimacy to their interrogations. One shot in particular seems to suggest that in a different world, perhaps these two would share a romance. Or is that just another of Lechter’s tricks? With Hannibal, one can never tell. He lures the audience under his spell as much as his victims. One of the film’s greatest achievements is to create a monster that is both terrifying and secretly likable in spite of his heinous nature. His affinity for classical music and art, his poetic dialogue, and his witty sense of humor (The Cannibal reads Bon Apetit magazine) trigger the audience’s empathy, who humanize him in spite of his diet and bloodlust. To Clarice, he is always mentor. And learn from him she does. Clarice engages in her own manipulations to ascertain what she seeks.
The title of the film is a highly metaphoric, which I will leave you to discover. The film is rife with symbolism in forms as varied as moths, American flags, glam rock, and swastikas. The cinematography in this film is genius, from the trembling camera and claustrophobic sets to the brilliant innovative use of night vision technology as storytelling. This is a film with snapshots that stay with you forever. Who can forget Hannibal in the facemask, one of the most indelible images of horror cinema? Even in a straightjacket, he can inflict damage. Almost everything about this film and the portrayal of its characters is impeccable.
The film’s most problematic element is the tired and overused cinema trope of people with alternate sexual orientation and/or gender identity connected as murderous and dangerous criminals. While it is stated that tranvestism is not correlated with psycopathy, the film does the audience no favors by weaving this into the narrative anyway, a nod to the first slasher, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. The reality is that far too many people in these communities are killed by others, whose hate is ironically fueled by irresponsible media portrayals; A trend that still exists in cinema today, in spite of progressive legislation.
Overall, Silence of the Lambs is an astonishing cinematic feat that breaks incredible ground for its time. The film also manages to leave the audience with one of the most haunting movie endings of the 90’s.
This is one the all-time great films, of any decade.
Rating: 5 Servings of Fava Beans