Thursday, January 22, 2015

AFI Top 100: #74 "The Silence of the Lambs"

Anthony Hopkins & Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The first and only horror film to take home the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Silence of the Lambs comes in at #74 on the AFI Top 100 list, and I find that to be way too low. There may have been a time when psychological horror flicks could be considered low-brow, but this, along with films like Se7en, prove just how beautiful and compelling a basic serial killer plot can be. And for the first time on our AFI journey so far, a movie is walking away with a perfect score from me.

Based on the Red Dragon / Hannibal Lecter series of suspense novels written by Thomas Harris in the 1980's, which focus on the life at varying stages of the enigmatic forensic psychiatrist and serial killer. The Silence of the Lambs is easily the most lauded adaptation of these novels for the screen. The film follows Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a young cadet at Quantico, training for the FBI's forensic crime division. Bodies are piling up as a serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill alludes capture, and the FBI hopes to pick the brain of one Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), currently serving life in prison, in hopes of tracking Bill down.

Clarice is naive but particularly ambitious. She's sent to speak with Lecter, given specific instructions on how to be and not to be in his presence, but of course, Hannibal is just too charming to resist, even when his is talking about eating the liver of a census taker. Hannibal takes a liking to Clarice, and agrees to share his insights with her... so long as she shares details about herself with him. Deal! What could go wrong?

Unlike many psychological thrillers, this movie has very little frills. Thrills, yes, but it stays very grounded and dismissively real. By that, I mean it isn't gross or shocking for your sake. It's gross or shocking or frightening or weird because... well, serial killers are those things and more. Director Jonathan Demme doesn't hesitate to give you most of the information up front, well before our darling Clarice even has a whiff of it. The picture is painted before our eyes, and the beauty comes from watching everyone else make sense of it. We, like Hannibal, get to have the inside scoop and feel like know-it-alls.

Perhaps that is why his character is so intriguing to us. He does despicable thingsinsane, inhuman things, and yet we admire his intelligence. If only we all could manipulate our surroundings like he does. Anthony Hopkins has said he imagined Lecter like a flesh and blood version of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey... cold, calculating, and disarmingly all-knowing. Hopkins is a one-of-a-kind talent. Other people have played Hannibal with an eerie elegance (I'm a huge fan of the "Hannibal" TV show staring Mads Mikkelsen), but Hopkins was the first to give us a Hannibal we wanted to watch. Most people forget that Silence of the Lambs isn't even about Hannibal or his crimesBuffalo Bill is actually a much more terrifying villian, which makes Lecter the perfect antihero by contrast.

Jodie Foster has the ability to exhibit wide-eyed childishness alongside undeterred strength unlike any actress I've ever seen. We connect with her the moment we feel ourselves wishing we could share with her what we know. Sometimes she's frustrating, because girl! he's right in front of you! but that only lasts a matter of moments. She's always right there, the recognition and understanding creeping right behind. The script and editing are consistent and don't let you flounder as an audience member for long. In this day and age when special effects override logical pacing, this is a rare, rare find.

If you couldn't tell, I tried to write this review without giving much away. It's hardly a mystery to most people who love movies, since you'd probably seen this, but I don't care. There is something to be said about watching it fresh, even if you've seen it before. There are elements in this movie that are so iconic, we often forget the finer details. The quiet moments, of conversation and discovery, of forensic inquiries. Those make this movie an Oscar winner, not just another episode of "Criminal Minds."

I hope that if you're reading this, and you haven't given Silence of the Lambs a chance out of, I don't know, fear... take it from me, the biggest scaredy-cat ever: it's worth it. I hesitate even describing it as horror, but there you go. It's interesting and confounding, and in my opinion, truly top-notch cinema. Something far and away from the likes of Roman epics and character dramas. I hope that in 2017, the newest version of this list includes more movies like this.

Rating:  ★★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Orion Pictures]

Check back next week for #73, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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