Jonathan Demme’s finest two hours is also one of the greatest films to emerge from the ‘90s.
Dir. Jonathan Demme
1991 | USA | Drama/Crime/Thriller | 118 mins | 1.85:1 | English
NC16 (passed clean) for violence and mature themes
Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn
Plot: A young FBI cadet must receive the help of an incarcerated and manipulative cannibal killer to help catch another serial killer, a madman who skins his victims.
Awards: Won 5 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay. Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Film Editing, Best Sound; Won Silver Bear – Best Director (Berlin)
Subject Matter: Dark/Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)
It’s difficult to talk about ‘90s American cinema without mentioning, at least in passing, about Jonathan Demme’s landmark The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from Thomas Harris’ popular novel of the same name. It swept the Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Lead Actress and Adapted Screenplay, becoming only the third film to do so in the history of the Academy Awards. Accolades aside, Lambs is probably Demme’s finest two hours—a film that holds you in its tightening grip from the first shot to last.
Featuring Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the infamous psychiatrist who has a taste for human flesh, as well as Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a young, up-and-coming FBI cadet tasked to milk the imprisoned Lecter for more insight into a new and urgent serial killer case, Lambs is not just a tour de force in terms of performances (particularly Hopkins’ chilling display), but an exemplar of how a riveting investigative crime-thriller can be constructed with both technical precision and human drama.
“Well, Clarice – have the lambs stopped screaming?”
Characterisations are very strong, to the point that they propel the narrative more than the intricacies of plotting. And this is probably why the entire climax (and the leading up to it) of Lambs has always been regarded as one of the medium’s most palpably suspenseful sequences.
Despite being a more mainstream movie than one would let out, Demme’s film has that rare sense of intelligence, a thinking person’s picture if you will, with a blend of thrills afforded by the Hollywood crime procedural, as well as psychosocial elements that better characterise arthouse character studies.
“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”
Demme’s prowess with close-ups is at its pinnacle here as he frames (working with long-time cinematographer Tak Fujimoto) conversations with unnerving power, particularly between Lecter and Starling as they cross minds in several ‘quid pro quo’ sessions. He almost never shoots close-ups in the same angle or distance twice, with every shot becoming a new controlling gaze of the beholder.
Serial killer mysteries fascinate Americans a lot, which is probably why some of the greatest modern films of this kind emerge from there. Think of the likes of David Fincher’s Seven (1995) or Zodiac (2007), or the Coens’ No Country for Old Men (2007). But The Silence of the Lambs could be the most influential.