Jonathan Demme’s sleek and tantalizingly creepy The Silence of the Lambs is about an FBI agent-in-training, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), and how she struggles to track down a serial killer. But the most exciting presence in the film is Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant, incarcerated psychopath who agrees to help her in her search. Lecter lives deep within the bowels of a Baltimore institution for the criminally insane. When Clarice first goes to see him, descending into the darkened, grungy brick corridor reserved for the hospital’s most dangerous and deranged patients, she seems to be entering some medieval version of hell. At the very end of the corridor, behind an impenetrable clear-plastic wall, stands Lucifer himself: Lecter, the psychiatrist who liked to murder people and then eat them, or at least their vital organs (thus his nickname, Hannibal the Cannibal).
We in the audience, along with Clarice, are geared to expect a bone-chilling monster, the maniac cutthroat of all time. Instead, the middle-aged man who stands before us is handsome in a soothing, almost fatherly way, his big bright eyes gazing out at the world with exquisite sensitivity. Lecter’s dark hair is slicked straight back, and his stocky upper body, which is clad in a skintight T-shirt, is calm yet poised, as though he were about to perform gymnastic feats. There’s a touch of androgyny in his ironically serene presence; he’s at once virile and soft, like a ballet dancer. And when he begins to talk, the words that come out are seamless, playful, and as thrillingly seductive as a dancer’s movements.
Raising his nostrils to the air holes in his transparent wall, he quickly identifies the kind of skin cream Clarice uses, as well as her perfume — even though she hasn’t worn it for at least a day. Lecter, you see, is a genius of perception (especially when it comes to his olfactory powers). He’s a kind of twisted Sherlock Holmes, able to absorb, with heightened, Zen-like detachment, everything that goes on around him, and to draw visionary inferences from the mass of data his senses take in.
Hopkins, always one of the most dynamic of British actors, gives the performance of his life. He delivers his lines in a rapid-fire hush, but his eyes, in a running counterpoint, are impish, amused, and almost subliminally knowing, as though some pleasurable otherworldly light were passing through them. We can sense that savagery and tenderness coexist in Lecter, that they grow out of the same directness of spirit. What makes the character so prickly and fascinating is that, as the movie presents it, his homicidal impulses are a natural extension of his intelligence, his ability to appreciate people’s most intimate qualities. Lecter seeks complete knowledge of everyone he encounters: By killing people and eating them, he literally consumes their identities.
Clarice has been assigned by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, to submit Lecter to a standardized questionnaire. What Crawford really wants, though, is Lecter’s help in apprehending Buffalo Bill, a sicko who has been murdering women and skinning them. Crawford figures that Clarice, because she’s a novice (and extremely attractive), will bring Lecter out in a way that a more experienced agent couldn’t. But Clarice turns out to be savvier than he expected. Her girlish ingenuousness does get to Lecter, but so does her sharp, intuitive mind, since that’s what he values most in a person.
Intrigued and infatuated, Lecter sets a deal in motion. Tell me about yourself, he tells Clarice: Reveal your secrets, your fears, your soul, and I’ll look over the evidence and help you find Buffalo Bill. The Silence of the Lambs jumps between their conversations, Clarice’s investigation into the killings, and scenes set inside the anonymous small-town lair of Buffalo Bill, a.k.a. Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), a would-be transsexual who is keeping his latest prey alive in a dungeon-like hole in the basement.
This is the second screen adaptation of one of Thomas Harris’ best-selling serial-killer novels. The first, director Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter (based on Harris’ Red Dragon), had a druggy, saturnine intensity; I thought it was the most disturbing — and mesmerizing — thriller of the past decade. The Silence of the Lambs is a far less unsettling movie, in part because Demme has toned down the awfulness of the killer’s scheme. In the book, Buffalo Bill’s systematic skinning of his victims had a gruesome logic (he literally wanted to wear a woman’s torso). Here, his taxidermic ambitions have been made somewhat more vague, and so we aren’t hit with the full, shocking horror of what Clarice is up against. I got the feeling that Demme didn’t want to spend too many scenes exploring the diseased mind of a misogynist psychopath. Yet artistically speaking, his reticence may have been a mistake. No other pop novelist has gotten as far inside the heads of serial killers as Thomas Harris does. The Silence of the Lambs would have been harder to shake off had it been crazier and less ”moral” — less of a feminist outcry over the violence perpetrated against women.
For all that, Demme has created a supremely sensuous and hypnotic thriller, one that’s likely to become his first major hit. He brings Harris’ sensationalistic material an emotional charge virtually unheard of in this genre. Jodie Foster has sometimes projected too much intellectual avidity for the characters she’s playing (that was true of both The Accused and her overrated teen-hooker turn in Taxi Driver). Here, though, her bright-eyed alertness is just what’s called for, and it takes on an almost lyrical quality. Sporting a Southern accent, she gives Clarice a brisk, no-nonsense attitude and, beneath that, a beguiling blend of curiosity and fear. Clarice never seems more accomplished than a freshman overachiever, yet we’re also convinced that she’s daring enough to lock eyes with a lethal game-player like Lecter.
The movie takes its eerie resonance from the bond between these two. The bond works because Lecter, as Hopkins plays him, remains weirdly, perversely likable — despite the fact that he’ll tear people’s faces off when given the opportunity. It works as well because Clarice’s openness with Lecter isn’t sentimentalized; it’s shown to be part of what makes her a good detective. When she tells him that, as a girl, she once came upon the unendurable sound of lambs being slaughtered, and that the event has haunted her ever since, she’s letting down all her defenses. In that moment, Lecter gets to partake of Clarice’s identity without killing her. At the same time, he’s doing her a favor, offering her a cathartic look in the mirror. What Clarice and Lecter share is a desire for something that few besides born detectives would ever seek: the full, horrifying knowledge of human darkness.