With an opening jogging sequence only rivalled by Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, Jonathan Demme’s chilling masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs still manages to send tingles down the spine 26 years on from its original theatrical release.
It’s intriguing to revisit the film in light of the recent release of Mindhunter, which premiered on Netflix last month. Like The Silence of the Lambs it also explores the history of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit and features a character that Harris would also base Jack Crawford on (a fleeting, yet impressive turn from Scott Glen). Much critical praise has rightly been given to Cameron Britton’s performance as real life serial killer Edmund Kemper. Yet, as superb as these performances are, none in the genre are as captivating as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter.
Take those icy, claustrophobic interviews between fledgling FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, who picked up the 1992 Oscars award for Best Actress) and Lecter, played with toothsome malice by Hopkins (who likewise took home a gong for Best Actor). You lean into those scenes, only to recoil in horror. They still lay claim to some of the most memorable quotes, not just in the horror genre, but in all of cinema. Who doesn’t get a thrill from Hopkins’ delicate diction as he tells us he chewed down on an irksome census taker’s liver “with some fava beans and a nice chianti”?
His taste for the finer things in life only adds to the terror. Lecter is an aesthete who sketches chiaroscuro drawings of the Duomo in Florence and listens to Bach’s Aria da Capo. He’s also capable of chewing on a policeman’s face and eviscerating him. Remarkably, Hopkins is only on-screen for a total of 16 minutes (give or take a few seconds). Yet, in little over a quarter of an hour, he imprints a terrifying image of a villain as iconic as Jason or Freddie. But what of the rest of the film? Foster’s performance is remarkable, not just in the scenes with Lecter, but throughout. She possesses a ferocity and a fragility. Early on in the film, before she is put on the Buffalo Bill case, Starling steps into an elevator, sweating from a recent run on an assault course that opens the film. The male agents that tower over her don’t daunt her. She even has a wry, knowing smile – she knows what she is made of.
The film wasn’t without its controversy upon release. The characterisation of the main villain Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), was criticised as transphobic, and picketed during the Oscars by LGBT activists. The argument is similar to those levied against Psycho’s Norman Bates, namely that it murkily associates being transgender with being a psychopath. The real problem is a lack of clarity to Gumb’s character that blights the film, since his pathology is never clearly defined. Nearly three decades on, The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t just hold up: it still startles in finesse and execution. Except for the problems surrounding Gumb’s character, the film remains a high point for each member of the cast and in Demme’s career. And yes, we can still hear the lambs screaming.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh