1. Archive

On the right track

The Silence of the LambsX X X X

Director: Jonathan Demme

Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins (above), Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Ted Levine

Screenplay: Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris

Rating: R; violence, nudity, profanity

Running time: 118 minutes

Excellent XXXXX; Very good XXXX;

Good XXX; Mediocre XX; Poor X

If The Silence of the Lambs doesn't unnerve you, you're stiffer than any of the corpses littering director Jonathan Demme's riveting psychological thriller.

The Silence of the Lambs is supremely suspenseful, deliciously twisted and superbly acted.

Jodie Foster embodies the cool assurance of FBI trainee Clarice Starling, chosen for her intellect, drive and keen perception to enlist the help of imprisoned serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter in capturing another murderous sociopath.

Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal "The Cannibal" incarnated: calculating and cruel, yet oddly compassionate and polite. He makes a most alluring mass murderer, utterly despicable and likable at the same time.

Rarely has a movie been so faithful to its source material and yet so different in tone. Demme's film manages to retain the pulp-thriller elements of Thomas Harris' best-selling novel while eliminating much of its lurid nature. Despite its subject matter _ the hunt for the transvestite responsible for the murder-mutilation of five women _ The Silence of the Lambs is hardly as gratuitous as Harris' novel. And Harris' novel is only one step removed from American Psycho, the Bret Easton Ellis work that has received widespread pre-publication notoriety.

Demme's movie rarely shows what is described in graphic detail in Harris' book. The grimaces on Starling's face and that of her mentor, FBI Special Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), tell all that is necessary about The Silence of the Lambs' victims who are skinned or deprived of their vital organs for a post-mortem snack.

In the age of the Gainesville murders and Ted Bundy, The Silence of the Lambs seems particularly horrifying while strangely commonplace. The novel and movie reflect aspects of both cases. Bundy posed as an invalid in order to lure his victims to come to his aid. The Gainesville murderer reportedly mutilated his victims; "Buffalo Bill" in The Silence of the Lambs skins his quarry.

The Silence of the Lambs works exceptionally well on most every level. It is a mesmerizing manhunt, detailing the FBI's research methods and the workings of a mass murderer's mind. It probes the psyche of its fledgling investigator, Starling, a West Virginia marshal's daughter, whom Dr. Lecter notes is "one generation removed from poor white trash" with her "good bag and cheap shoes."

The movie superbly depicts the Lex Luthor of Harris' Red Dragon _ The Silence of the Lambs series: Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a genius whose greatest pleasure is digging under the skin, either psychologically or with whatever tool might be handy.

Screenwriter Ted Tally captures the essence of these characters, dispensing with a few subplots from the book _ Crawford's wife's illness, Crawford's previous involvement with Lecter and the interplay between Crawford and Starling _ while including as much detail from Harris' novel as possible.

The exceptional detail and the terseness of Harris' writing style is what makes The Silence of the Lambs so compelling to read. However, due to the movie's time constraints, Demme and Tally have cut much of Lecter's and Crawford's backgrounds, as well as the pathology of serial killers and some of the investigation process.

Demme still retains the story's drive. In place of a fabric woven from facts, he creates a visual and auditory blanket.

The Silence of the Lambs' sound track is the illegitimate cousin of David Lynch's Dune. Unnerving rumbles, thumps and screeches echo through the madhouse scenes, both the shadowy maximum security cellblock where Lecter is imprisoned and the underground lair where Buffalo Bill holds a U.S. senator's daughter captive.

Tak Fujimoto's camera twists its way through the brick-and-steel confines of Lecter's prison and the labyrinth basement where Buffalo Bill keeps his victims in a dried-up well. Fujimoto zooms tight on Lecter, Starling and Crawford's faces, recording tics of nervousness and other nuances of expression.

The characters in Demme's movie are as compelling as in the book. Anthony Heald is supremely sleazy as Dr. Frederick Chilton, the administrator of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, who uses Dr. Lecter as a bargaining tool for personal gain. Dan Butler and Paul Lazar project the boyish nerdiness of Roden and Pilcher, the entomologists who identify the moth pupa pulled from the throat of one of Buffalo Bill's victims.

Glenn exudes a quiet intensity as Crawford, the agent leading the investigation. Foster betters her work in The Accused, capturing Starling's anger, drive and vulnerability as she reveals her unhappy past to Lecter in order to draw more information from him about Bill.

Hopkins' Lecter is The Silence of the Lambs' ringmaster. From inside his cage, he toys with Starling, answering questions with anagrams and deriving perverse pleasure from watching her fight the urge to shudder. He is frustrating, dangerously violent and darkly funny.

It is perhaps Hopkins' greatest achievement that when he tells Starling he's having an old friend for dinner, the audience smiles with morbid anticipation.