Based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs has become one of the most recgonisable thrillers in the last 20 years. Sweeping the Oscars big five awards (Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) at the 64th Academy Awards, it also became a commercial success taking over $270m from a budget of $19m. It also sky-rocketed the career of lead star Anthony Hopkins, while cementing other lead Jodie Foster’s place in the A-List of Hollywood.
FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) is pulled from her course to interview renowned serial killer and cannibalistic-minded Hannibal Lector (Hopkins) in hopes that his insight will lead them to capture another serial killer. Initially sceptical, Lector agrees to help profile the killer in exchange for information on Clarice’s past. As they get closer to finding the serial killer known only as Buffalo Bill, Lector begins to get closer to Clarice.
Initially a slow-starter in the public perception, The Silence of the Lambs began to gain popularity through word-of-mouth. The films greatest triumph is in its casting. The character of Hannibal Lector, originally cast as Gene Hackman became the calling card of Anthony Hopkins. His casual switching from gentleman to psychopath is a tour de force and one of the most memorable portrayals of such a character since Psycho. His presence, which so dominates The Silence of the Lambs is even more impressive given that he’s only on screen for around 16 mintues.
As good as Hopkins is however, he would not be anywhere near as terrifying and engaging without a suitable foil. In the case of The Silence of the Lambs, Foster’s turn as the young and naive Clarice gives the film grounding and allows Hopkins to really go to town. Both actors were rewarded with Oscars for their performances and its tough to argue with either decision.
Director Demme almost treats his subject matter as a horror, with some thoroughly chilling and bone-curdling set-pieces that stay with the audience long after the credits roll. It deals with the conflict between social niceties and the almost sensationalist aspects of the human psyche.
What we are treated to is a tightly paced and completely absorbing thriller that redefines the cinema psychopath and makes it almost impossible not to reference in later works. In the hands of lesser artists The Silence of the Lambs could have descended into cheap exploitation, yet because of the casting and director we have one of the single greatest examples of a psychological thriller ever committed to celluloid.