Retro Review: The Silence of the Lambs
Everything old is new again, or so it seems. In Retro Review, our resident film buffs take a dive into a movie classic -- and tell us why it worked then, and whether it still works now. This week, Dave Nguyen looks back at a classic fright show.
THE MOVIE: The Silence of the Lambs, 1991, It managed a rare clean sweep of the top Oscars in 1992 (Best Picture, Actress, Actor, Director and Adapted Screenplay.)
WHO’S IN IT? Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine.
DO I KNOW THEM? Jodie Foster: Maybe, and if you don't you should get up to speed on her extraordinary career. Foster has been in the business since she was a child, making her film debut in 1972 at the age of 10, and has won two Oscars, including for Lambs. She is also an acclaimed director. She has done a mix of directing for film and TV in recent years, and has not made a significant box office splash as an actress for some years.
Anthony Hopkins: As with Foster, if you are not familiar with this acting giant's work it's time to make amends and there is a film to cater for almost any taste and mood in his 56-year career. One of Britain's most recognisable and prolific actors, he is known for his performances on screen and stage and is also a multiple Oscar nominee and two-time winner, for Lambs in 1992 and forThe Father nearly 30 years later in 2020.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Clarice Sterling (Jodie Foster), a rookie FBI agent, is a motivated student at the Academy and aspires to one day work for the organisation’s Behavioural Science Unit. Clarice is asked to visit the cannibalistic murderer Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) at a maximum-security mental institution by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the head of the Behavioural Science Unit.
Crawford hopes that Lecter will paint a clearer picture of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the new psychopathic serial killer, even though Clarice is initially unaware of this. Buffalo Bill has already murdered five people, all of whom are slightly obese young women who had large portions of their skin torn off them.
After talking to Lecter, Clarice realises that playing along with the psychological games will be the only option to solve the case.
WHY DID IT WORK THEN?
This movie stood out for its complex emotions and issues. Every character is experiencing something of overwhelming significance. The senator wants his daughter back, Lecter seeks retribution, Starling seeks catharsis, Buffalo Bill is shedding his skin to take on a new identity. The interaction of these individuals produced an epic tale. To advance, we all depend on one another. Without one another, they are unable to complete their arcs.
DOES IT WORK NOW?
There is no denying the social impact of this film and its exploration of sexism in the workplace. But if The Silence of the Lambs was released today there is no doubt the character of Buffalo Bill would require some rethinking. Since the film's release it has been under attack from the LGBTQ+ community on the grounds of transphobia and homophobia. In a modern setting, less of a focus might be placed on Agent Starling's challenges as a woman and more as an agent forced into partnership with an absolute psychopath -- and to an extent, it has, with the various sequels and the spin-off show Hannibal.
DO I NEED TO SEE IT?
It’s one of the most perfectly crafted films ever made. And the craft never draws attention to itself. There are no “hey, look what I can do!" moments, no art-for-art’s-sake shot framing, no nudging the audience to get the subtext. There is absolutely no attempt at sensationalising anything. This, when there are enough elements in the story that could have been milked for gruesome cheap thrills.