Evil comes in many forms,
In the loner and the swarms,
In the wielder of the knife,
In the prober of your life.
Though it hides or means to try,
It draws your interest and your eye.
Dark are deeds we’d never do,
Yet they still are dared by few.
Justice runs to halt the spread,
But if it wins, there’s still the dread.
Evil loves to carve its notch,
But why do any choose to watch?
MPAA rating: R
After years of hearing how great it is and seeing most of Anthony Hopkins’s performance through clips, I decided to finally watch the Best Picture of 1991. The Silence of the Lambs is everything critics have praised over the years: a dark mystery, a dramatic powerhouse, a compelling character study of two opposing forces, one seeking justice and the other too demented to be fully understood. It is both Hopkins’s and Jodie Foster’s finest hours, winning both of them Academy Awards, as well as Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay. And it is a great film which I have little desire to see again. The Silence of the Lambs is one of those movies that I can admire without being able to fully embrace as a favorite, more due to my personal sensitivities than to any flaws on the film’s part.
It’s an ingenious setup, pitting an eager but untested FBI agent-in-training (Foster) against the memorably evil serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) with the aid of the even more memorably evil killer Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins). Clarice Starling is a woman trying to prove herself to her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) and to save other women, who are being killed and skinned by Bill across the Midwest. Jonathan Demme’s directorial tactic of filming actors as they look directly into the camera is even more effective than in his next film Philadelphia (which perhaps served to compensate for the allegedly homophobic aspects of Silence). As Crawford or Lecter or various men stare at Clarice and by extension the audience, it feels as if she is being sized up, measured, evaluated as an asset, a threat, or a toy. It’s an uncomfortable sensation but unique and intriguing enough to constantly hold our attention and keep us and Clarice on our toes.
Of course, the most remarkable element of the film is Anthony Hopkins, who amazingly won Best Actor for only sixteen minutes of screen time. He’s unflinchingly malevolent yet unsettlingly polite, a performance so captivating that it nearly dwarfs the rest of the film (hence, Best Actor rather than Best Supporting Actor). As diabolical and conniving as Lecter is, it’s Levine’s performance as Buffalo Bill that I found deeply disturbing. While Demme used much restraint in depicting the violence, Bill’s perverse cruelty doesn’t leave the mind easily, and I’ll probably just skip his scenes whenever I attempt a rewatch. It’s a wonder Levine has been able to move on from such a vile role.
Beyond Bill’s foul obsessions, I suppose my tepid appreciation stems from the fact that The Silence of the Lambs made me consider why serial killers are so popular. I don’t mean the supernatural types like Freddy Krueger (though I don’t like them either), but the modern focus on potentially real people who commit horrendous acts. Real-life killers like Ed Gein and Ted Bundy have inspired films like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, and serial killers are still trendy in TV shows like Dexter and Hannibal. What is it that is so compelling about these experts of violence? Most people would never dream of committing such acts, and yet we watch them or hear about them; we study their modus operandi and are fascinated.
The Silence of the Lambs offers some insight into its killers, whether it be the deductive clue-chasing of the FBI agents tracking Bill down or the dehumanizing way Bill refers to his victims as “it.” Lecter represents the enthralling, psychological aspect of these butchers, while Bill epitomizes the disgust. It’s fascinating, yet I can’t help but feel guilty and repulsed by my own fascination. The Silence of the Lambs is a masterfully disturbing thriller, but I don’t often like being disturbed. I don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside my head.
Best line: (Hannibal Lecter, with his most iconic line) “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Sssffff.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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