'The Silence of the Lambs': THR's 1991 Review

Orion Pictures Corp/Everett Collection
Jodie Foster in 'Silence of the Lambs' (1991)
A curdling 'Psycho'-drama in the highest Hitchcock order.

On Feb. 14, 1991, Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter hit the big screen in The Silence of the Lambs. The film went on to claim five Oscars at the 64th Academy Awards, including in top categories for actor, actress and director. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

Before he skins them, the killer sticks a moth down his victim's throat, symbolic of his own aberrant psycho-sexual condition, the need to turn from a moth to a butterfly. A curdling Psycho-drama in the highest Hitchcock order, The Silence of the Lambs should itself emerge as a butterfly at the box office, likely to flutter off with some very pretty grosses for Orion Pictures.

Based on Thomas Harris' best-selling novel of the same title, The Silence of the Lambs stars Jodie Foster as an ambitious, over-achieving FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, tapped to assist on a serial murder case, namely to bring in one "Buffalo Bill," notorious for his predilection for torturing and peeling the skin off hefty young brunettes. There's a method to Bill's madness, but it escapes the criminologist's grasp; only one expert has the necessary background and experience to draw a character composite and clue the authorities to the right trail. But he's no longer practicing. He's locked in maximum security — Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), whose credentials and nickname, are, woefully, deserved.

Lecter is a Mephistopheles of the most manic order, and in this chiller, the career-driven Clarice literally makes a pact with the devil: Despite her superior's (Scott Glenn) strong admonition, Clarice divulges personal information to Lecter in exchange for his insights into Bill's psychological profile and, as the FBI notes, "desperately random" killing style. To Lecter's superior pathological insights, however, "desperately random" is, of course, not random at all — he unveils a precise killing pattern to the eager young Clarice. But for this profile, Clarice is paying a big price: Lecter has tapped into her head and even behind steel bars and bulletproof glass, his diabolical prowess is overpowering. After all, Clarice has been sent in to tap him because she is to his taste, should Lecter ever escape.

Silence is dead-out spellbinding during the cat-and-mouse exchanges between the wily serial killer and the gutty law enforcement trainee. Under Jonathan Demme's masterful cinematic surgery, we get into Lecter's twisted skull and, through this outrageous descent, we come to see this sinister in the everyday. With his camera boring in, tightly affixed on the small area from Hopkins' eyebrows, to pointy chin, to bulbous ears, Demme's fix is akin to viewing a closeup of a bug. And Hopkins — with his flat, fluid, serpent-like delivery — casts a spell on us more poisonous than any reptile in the kingdom.

Not surprisingly, these scenes overwhelm much of the "Buffalo Bill" plot, which is also somewhat reduced by a facile third act. Nevertheless, screenwriter Ted Tally has unraveled a taut, mesmeric psychological thriller. Like Hitchcock, Demme spruces this marvelously polished production with flakes of bizarre humor, again, upsetting our reality and causing us to look at everyday thing in a far different light.

Hopkins' performance is spectacularly unnerving and should win him future award nominations. Holding her own against Hopkins' hare is Foster as the tenacious, tortoise-like trainee. Glenn is well-cast as Foster's officious superior. In addition, Anthony Heald is properly smarmy as the parasitic prison psychiatrist, while Brooke Smith is memorable as a hysterical victim.

Tech credits are sensational, realized with clinical and surgical skill. — Duane Byrge, originally published on Feb. 4, 1991

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