Jonathan Demme has consistently remained a director that made films that were decent yet unmotivated, lacking in conviction. His films would have a lot of tension, yet they would be missing a lot of identity and were often confused representations of the mental psyche. His characters would be mentally disturbed a lot of the time, or they would be downright sociopathic or would even be suffering from psychopathy. However, when The Silence of the Lambs was released; everything changed for John Demme.
The film released to a huge amount of critical success and won everything when it came to major awards including five of the most important awards at the Oscars. So what was the reason for this huge jump in quality? Let’s discuss.
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The Movie Review
Based on the book of the same name by Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs follows Clarice Starling; a rookie FBI agent in training. Clarice is called in by Jack Crawford to talk to Hannibal Lecter; a former psychiatrist turned infamous serial killer. The purpose of this interview is to gain information regarding a series of killings by a killer only known as Buffalo Bill; a killer that removes his victims’ skins.
Clarice’s downward spiral within this investigation as she gets deeper and deeper into understanding what the motivations for Buffalo Bill’s murders are, gets even darker as Hannibal Lecter’s manipulations begin to take hold of her and the people around her.
Saying that The Silence of the Lambs is a disturbing film would be an understatement. The film manages to showcase the darkest aspects of the human mind, without actually diving too deep into the philosophy of these killers.
The film’s aura of suspense is largely thanks to Jonathan Demme’s masterful crafting of suspense, the amount of tension that this film creates with each shot is a testament to not just Thomas Harris’ characters, but to each actor and the way Jonathan Demme pulled Oscar-winning performances out of them. Each shot is meticulously choreographed, with characters’ movements being slowed down when needed to showcase an atmospheric sense of dread.
The nature of this film and its characters is impeccably crafted, you can tell this from the very first interaction between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performances are highlighted to their maximum here through a thorough understanding of slow cinematic buildup. Clarice’s very first interview starts with her walking through the aisles in the jail cells, witnessing the worst and most terrifying sides of humanity that she has ever seen. She slowly reaches higher and higher levels of psychopathy and terror, as she gets closer to Hannibal’s cell.
However, once she gets there she sees a clean, well-dressed, and soft-spoken man with malice in his voice. That first “Hello Clarice” basically defines Hannibal’s character, a manipulative, super-sane, psychopath who knows what he’s doing and enjoys it to the maximum extent. He’s not crazy or mentally ill, he’s evil incarnate.
What helps this film elevate itself beyond just another decent psychological thriller/horror film is the fact that it doesn’t pull any punches. You will see decapitated heads, you will see flesh being bitten off of people that are alive, you will see skin torn off of bodies and you will see everything that you basically do not wish to see in vivid detail. The fact that the film doesn’t shy away from showing this disturbing content just adds to its layer of psychopathy, and its characters’ cruel ideas.
With all that said and done, this film reinvented the wheel when it came to showcasing terrifying, evil, and cruel characters in a psychological horror film. The fact that Jonathan Demme chose to showcase every aspect of Clarice’s journey in extremely vivid detail is what makes this film horrifying, and engaging at the same time. You want to look away, but you simply cannot look away due to the film being just so engrossing.