The Silence Of The Lambs - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1991

Director: Jonathan Demme

Production: Orion Pictures, A Strong Heart/Demme Production; Technicolour, Panavision; running time: 118 minutes.

Producer: Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, Ron Bozman; screenplay: Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris; photography: Tak Fujimoto; editor: Craig McKay; assistant directors: Ron Bozman, Kyle McCarthy, Steve Rose, Gina Leonetti; production design: Kristi Zea; art director: Tim Galvin; music: Howard Shore; sound editor: Skip Lievsay; sound recording: Christopher Newman, John Fundus, Alan Snelling.

Cast: Jodie Foster ( Clarice Starling ); Anthony Hopkins ( Hannibal Lecter ); Scott Glenn ( Jack Crawford ); Ted Levine ( Jamie Gumm ); Anthony Heald ( Dr. Frederick Chilton ); Brooke Smith ( Catherine Martin ).

Awards: Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Foster), Best Adapted Screenplay, 1991.



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The Silence of the Lambs

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The Silence of the Lambs is the most authentically terrifying movie since Psycho , and it is appropriate that Hannibal Lecter (as incarnated in the superb performance of Anthony Hopkins) should have established a position within our culture's popular mythology comparable to that of Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates three decades earlier. By "authentically" I mean that the terror the film induces is not merely a matter of contrived "shock" moments (though, as in Psycho , those are not lacking). The film brings us into intimate and disturbing contact with the darkest potentialities of the human psyche and, by locating the existence of the serial killer within a context of "normality," connects it to those manifestations of what one might call the "normal psychosis" of the human race which we read about daily in our newspapers: the practice of "ethnic cleansing," the protracted torture and eventual murder of a teenager by "peacemakers" in Somalia, the horrors of child abuse (sexual, physical, psychological) that are the product of our concept of "family" and the guarantee of their own continuance into future generations.

The humanity of Hannibal Lecter is clearly a central issue: if we see Lecter as only a monster, quite distinct from ourselves, then the film fails, becomes "just another horror movie"; as Jodie Foster says of Lecter in the laser disc commentary, "he just wants to be accepted as a human being." Therefore the filmmakers' problem lies in persuading us to do just that without ever becoming complicit in his obsessions (killing and eating other human beings): a difficult and dangerous tightrope to walk. It is their degree of success that distinguishes the film from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , in which the fascination exerted by the monstrous cannibal family is not countered by any adequate positive force, the undercharacterized victims mere objects for torment, the film (for all its undeniable power) degenerating into an exercise in sadism.

The success is not complete: it seems to me that Jonathan Demme made two unfortunate errors of judgment. The first is the excision of a crucial sequence that was shot and is included in the supplement to the Criterion laser disc. This sequence includes Lecter's "psychological profile" of the serial killer, accompanied by evocative tracking-shots around Jamie Gumm's living quarters, in which he explains to Clarice Starling that a serial killer was a severely abused child (a theory for which there is a great deal of factual support), and that Gumm grew up with no sense of identity whatever, so that his attempts to construct one are unreal fabrications. The scene would have partly answered the widespread complaint that Gumm is presented as gay, reinforcing a malicious popular stereotype; it would also have linked the phenomenon of the serial killer to familial practices we now know to be all too common. I find the decision to suppress it inexplicable.

The second error (for which the screenwriter Ted Tally must share responsibility) is the film's famous last line, Lecter's "I'm having an old friend for dinner." Ironically, Tally complains at length (in the commentary on the laser disc's alternative audio track) about the appropriation of Lecter for "camp" purposes, that so many young people find him smart and seductive and even collect Lecter memorabilia: that last line precisely invites such a response, especially in view of the fact that Lecter's imminent victim Dr. Chilton/Anthony Heald is presented throughout as irredeemably despicable, enabling the audience to view his fate with equanimity and even satisfaction. The punch line is slick and funny: one can readily understand the temptation, but it is one that should have been resisted.

The film's distinction lies ultimately in its powerful and convincing embodiment of the force for life, in the character of Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster's performance matching that of Hopkins in its strength and vividness. There is another documented fact about serial killers too obvious for the film to have to state explicitly (it is enacted clearly enough): virtually all serial killers are male. Like the issue of child abuse, this reinforces the need to see the phenomenon not in terms of individual and inexplicable "monsters" but as intimately involved in the so-called "normal" actualities of the culture: the issue of gender-as-social-construction, of the cultural production of "masculinity" in terms of aggression and domination. The achievement of Demme and Foster is to create Starling both as a clearly defined and convincing character and as the embodiment of an ideal: the human being in whom the finest qualities traditionally associated with "masculinity" and "femininity" coexist in perfect balance. The film's title derives from Starling's definitive childhood memory: the young girl's unsuccessful attempt to save one lamb from those waiting to be slaughtered, whose frantic bleating distressed her. The "silence" of the lambs is brought about only by her rescue of Gumm's latest female victim, a feat of heroism requiring a fusion of "masculine" activeness, energy, reasoning and determination with the capacity for identification with the "feminine" vulnerability, sensitivity, empathy with the oppressed. If we recognize Lecter and Gumm as 'human beings' produced by the worst excesses of patriarchal culture, we simultaneously recognize Clarice as the fully human being of a possible future.

—Robin Wood

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