Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Silence of the Lambs

Anthony Hopkins holds the record for least amount of screen time in an Academy Award-winning Best Actor role for his part as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.  That's not a terribly obscure factoid, but it's worth pointing out because Hopkins really steals the show in his sixteen minutes on screen.  Why do I bring this up?  Well, despite Hopkins' scene-stealing performance, the movie isn't about Hannibal Lecter.  It's not even about chasing down serial killers.  It's about Clarice Starling.  "What?  A girl?"  No, really.

Clarice (Jodie Foster) is an FBI agent-in-training that gets the opportunity to tag along with one of her instructors, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), as part of an FBI task force.  The task force is focusing on an ongoing hunt for a serial killer that the FBI has nicknamed Buffalo Bill because he skins his victims.  Using it-takes-a-thief logic, Crawford sends Clarice to a maximum security mental facility to pick the brain of the incarcerated serial killer, Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, hoping that she can persuade Lecter to give his undoubtedly intelligent input on the case.  The film spends some time checking up on Buffalo Bill and his latest soon-to-be victim, but the bulk of the film is spent on Clarice decoding Lecter's input and investigating those leads.  Once she is assigned to Lecter duty, Clarice's time in the big leagues with the task force seems done.  Of course, that is only until her intelligence (and Lecter's help) leads her to the killer without any back-up.

In some ways, this film is a common horror/thriller.  The climax is essentially a cat-and-mouse game, one not terribly different from what has come before it.  Buffalo Bill's tendencies are taken from real-life serial killer M.O.'s (Ted Bundy and Ed Gein, most notably), so his horrific work is also somewhat familiar.  Heck, this isn't even the first movie to feature Hannibal Lecter, although the role was played by Brian Cox in Manhunter.  So what makes this movie so special?  It is only the third movie to have swept the major Academy Award categories (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director - Jonathan Demme, Best Actor - Anthony Hopkins, and Best Actress - Jodie Foster), so there is clearly something that separates this film from the many others that it superficially resembles.

One of the primary differences is the story's focus.  So often, movies of this type boil down the story to one cop and one criminal gunning for each other.  Here, more so than in Thomas Harris' novel of the same name, the focus is on Clarice's experience on the case.  It is not about how she solves the case, but her complete experience.  Yes, her experience is surrounded by one major case, but her experience is so much more than just the case; I cannot think of another movie where an officer of the law character is not completely defined by their case, which makes this a very unique approach.  You can notice this from the clever use of the cameras (it often assumes her point-of-view), but the script is just as responsible for this.  The opening credits have Clarice running through a training obstacle course; this course is not important to the story, so the only reason to show it is to let the audience learn something about her character.  First off, she's a woman surrounded by men that smirk as they see her struggle.  More importantly, though, she works through her troubles and appears to be succeeding.  Instead of treating this as an ensemble cast, the choice to stick with Clarice is really what makes it stand out.  That choice is why the relationship between Clarice and Hannibal is so compelling and that is why the climactic scenes are effective and creepy.  Following Clarice around so closely makes her readily identifiable, likable, and impressive.  This almost never happens with female leads in these genres, and her gender plays a part in what makes this movie so noteworthy.  Jodie Foster does a great job with this unique role; she is understated an earnest, both of which are essential for making this character work.

Demme's direction is fantastic here, as well.  There are a lot of good uses of music and lighting and there are ongoing themes and symbols (I can't be the only one who keeps noticing red, white and blue all over the place in this film) and there are clear parallels between Clarice's journey to meet Hannibal and when she chases Buffalo Bill.  As someone who notices (or, at least, tries to notice) the subtle things that directors do, I cannot express how much of a treat it is to see so much done so well here.  That is enough to deserve acclaim, but that doesn't even cover his work with the actors.  Do you know how easily the first Hannibal scene could have been overacted?  Yes, the actor is ultimately the one doing the heavy lifting with the part, but the director decides what a good idea is and what makes the final cut.  Sometimes that means just getting out of the actors' way.  Whatever the case in this movie, Demme did a great job of getting the best work from his cast and using it well.

The supporting cast is good here, despite most of the roles being cameos.  Scott Glenn is decent in his role as Clarice's superior; he comes off as condescending and confident, which are probably the right traits for his character to exude.  Ted Levine is frightening and a little funny as Buffalo Bill.  Levine has a deep voice, but it seems to croak out of him here, making his disturbing acts seem all the more unnatural.  I have always believed that Levine gets short changed when people discuss this film because the focus is (justifiably) on Anthony Hopkins' performance, but the movie would have felt uneven if Levine was not able to construct a movie monster of his own.  Anthony Heald has a knack for playing pompous jerks, and this is one of his best roles.  His petty antics amidst a serious criminal investigation ring true, and the closing scene with him always makes me smile, despite the serious context.  The rest of the cast is made up of primarily television actors, but they don't distract from the more important roles at all, which is a feat unto itself.

And then there is Anthony Hopkins' performance.  One of the big reasons this film works is because Hopkins was able to live up to the film building up to his character.  The elaborate check in process in his Baltimore prison, the enormous cage when he is in Washington, DC, the face mask --- all of these make Lecter seem terrifying before you even get a chance for Hopkins to act.  Now, picture Gene Hackman (who nearly played the part) saying "Good evening, Clarice."  It just doesn't feel right.  Almost any other take on the character would have been a let down, given the reactions that the other characters have to Lecter.  It's not difficult to believe that Anthony Hopkins can convincingly play an intelligent character (he's got a British accent --- the work is half done for him already), but the type of intelligence he displays here is ingenious.  Instead of playing Lecter as a psychopath, or even as a less funny version of the Joker, Hopkins plays the character so cold and calculating that he seems almost mechanical (Perhaps even War Games-ish?) at times.  The unblinking stare he gives Clarice only reinforces his lack of humanity and his analytical prowess.  And then, out of nowhere, he'll make a wry comment about Senator Martin's shoes.  Lecter's coldness is what makes him frightening, but his ability to charm (even when he's insulting someone) is what makes him dangerous.  Hopkins did a fantastic job balancing the two tendencies, which lends a plausibility to the relationship he and Jodie Foster build together.

It's rare to find a film that can balance directorial voice, high quality acting, and a story that the masses readily embrace.  Any one of those qualities is enough to make a movie recommendable.  This film goes above and beyond.  It is disturbing, yet artfully done.  The acting is honest and empowering, but also frightening.  The story is familiar, and yet distinct.  Yes, the one thing you remember about the movie is undoubtedly Hopkins being creepy, but this movie is so much deeper than that, and so much more rewarding.

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