Montreal Film Journal


Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is a skilled young woman who's about to complete her training and become a FBI agent. She has some bad memories still haunting her, and things are about to get even more difficult. Indeed, she's been picked by a superior to go question a vicious serial killer in his jail cell. Why her? Because many male agents have tried to make the prisoner talk, unsuccessfully. They figure that maybe a young, untried woman will appeal to him. And so Clarice meets Dr. Hannibal Lecter aka Hannibal the Cannibal, an unforgettable embodiment of Evil played masterfully by the great Anthony Hopkins. What makes him so terrifying is not just that he killed and ate people. What's really disturbing is how calm and intelligent he is. When Clarice first comes upon him, he's standing straight behind the unbreakable Plexiglass that isolates him from the outside world. He speaks precisely and fluently, and you can feel he's a brilliant man. And before long, his abilities as a psychiatrist are evident in the way he turns the tables on the inquisitive Clarice and cross-examines her, surely and chillingly entering her mind and uncovering the fears she tries to forget.

"The Silence of the Lambs" (adapted from the Thomas Harris bestseller) is a very powerful exploration of such fears, as it takes us in corners of human nature we would prefer not to know exist. I'm positive that when people think of this film, they most clearly remember the scenes with Hopkins. It's understandable : this is absolutely riveting acting and filmmaking. But beyond Lecter and Starling's mental cat-and mouse games, there is also a very interesting thriller, as Clarice tracks another serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill for his habit of skinning his victims. The FBI trainee uses Lecter's insights to try to understand the motives of Buffalo Bill and hopefully stop him. Bill is also a fascinating character, convincingly played by Ted Levine, and in a lesser movie, he'd leave a great impression. But his weirdness pales in comparison Hopkins' tour de force performance. A transvestite, dress sewing, insect raising, poodle loving, obscure 80s New Wave music listening serial killer is unsettling, but not quite as much as a self-controlled genius who eats human flesh and organs.

Still, director Jonathan Demme keeps the film intense and haunting, and Jodie Foster compelling to watch. At first, she seems just cold and distant, but you gradually start to see that under this facade hides a scared little girl playing with the big boys but not feeling comfortable with male advances. Demme's picture is an interesting balance of subtle psychological games and graphic horrific images. The biggest surprise is that it turns out that thoughts and words are more terrifying than the gore. You wouldn't expect this type of film to win Oscars (for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress), but you can't deny it deserved them.