THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE 1991 FILM The Silence of the Lambs
Hello, Clarice. Few horror films have entered the cultural lexicon and endured in the way Jonathan Demme’s 1991 tour de force The Silence of the Lambs has. Despite having almost every taboo imaginable (cannibalism is just one example), it stands out for its ingenuity, three-dimensional characters, and biting social commentary. On the surface level, The Silence of the Lambs offers incredible thrills and often unbearable tension. It tells the story of FBI agent Clarice Starling’s relentless hunt after the depraved serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). The film excels, though, in its examination of the relationship between Clarice (Jodie Foster) and the psychiatrist/cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). There are thrillers and then there is The Silence of the Lambs. It’s one of the three movies to ever sweep “The Big Five” at the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Actor), and it’s for a reason: it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.
Perhaps the best thing about The Silence of the Lambs is its protagonist, Clarice. We see the world through her perspective. In addition to her external journey, we learn about her past, her childhood trauma, and why she’s pursuing Buffalo Bill. What makes Clarice not just a great hero but also a great character is her vulnerability. She’s an FBI trainee and is often forced out of her element both physically and emotionally. Her scenes with Lecter stand out as especially powerful, and their relationship over the course of the film is part of what makes Lambs such a watchable movie.
Speaking of watching, it would be neglectful not to mention Jonathan Demme’s masterful direction. His trademark was the subjective camera, in which characters deliver their lines directly into the camera, and it makes the whole experience of watching the film so much more engrossing. Because of that sole decision, the way we as the viewers experience the movie changes entirely: we are not watching Clarice—we are Clarice. The point-of-view shots aren’t just limited to closeups; throughout the film, we get multiple extended shots from Clarice’s perspective, most of which involve her (and us) being surrounded and suffocated. This changes again at the film’s iconic night vision climax, where we go from seeing through her eyes to watching her. Many horror films use POV shots to build tension, but few do it as thoughtfully and carefully as Lambs.
Horror is a genre often snubbed by the Oscars; however, The Silence of the Lambs is an example of the Academy Awards getting it right. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won The Big Five, all of which were well deserved. Although the grisly nature of many of the scenes often makes the film hard to watch, underneath the intimidating exterior lies one of the most fulfilling cinematic experiences you will ever have.