It’s so much fun to watch good movies. This is a very good movie. It’s great as a movie. It’s also a great example of an unsettling and frightening film that lingers long after the credits roll.
Released in 1990 and directed by Jonathan Demme, this film follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, as she is tasked with a simple assignment by her manipulative boss Jack Crawford, played by Scott Glenn. That assignment is to talk to a notorious serial killer. It’ll be good trainee for her and hopefully they can glean something from this man. She arrives at the mental hospital and is lead through locked door after locked door, past warning upon warning about this man. The build up to meeting him is intense, and when she finally meets this man he lives up to the anticipation. He is of course Hannibal Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins.
These two performers in these two rolls is absolutely magnetic. Foster does a fantastic job of conveying Starling’s youth and her anxieties especially under the intense eyes of Lecter and Crawford. She makes subtle gestures and minor vocal stammers that fly under the radar yet convey so much. And if there was an award for the actor who did the most with his eyes alone, it would go straight to Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. My goodness he has such intensity in his gaze. For most of the film he is locked in a single room. He can’t move or interact with Starling in any meaningful way except through his gaze and his looks. Hopkins infuses some incredible depth into his facial expressions. There are so many moments where his slightly raised eyebrow, or the smallest shift in his gaze conveys a complexity of emotion and thought that rarely gets captured in movies. These two are incredible.
As Starling talks to Lecter she uncovers more and more about the killer Buffalo Bill, a case the FBI is currently working on. A serial killer is abducting and killing young women. He is also taking their skins. Buffalo Bill has a tortured psychology that involves hating himself so much that he wants to create for himself a new body using the skin he takes from his victims. The more she talks to Lecter, the more insights she gleans into this killers mind. However, this information isn’t free. Lecter wants personal details from Starling’s life as well. What he wants with these details is up to the viewers imagination. Starling is able to uncover a lot about Bill and she becomes a more vital part of the investigation. However, as she inserts herself into the case, she is met with hostility to her presence by the men in charge.
This film is shot from Starling’s perspective. The camera is almost always at her eye level. When characters talk to her, they are looking directly into the camera, staring at the audience. This puts us entirely in her shoes. It helps us identify with her experience. It also helps set us on edge. We’re not used to the actors looking at us, let alone staring as intently at us Lecter does in most of his scenes. In scenes without Starling in them, the camera remains locked in with a character. Each scene is shown from a characters perspective. This brilliant use of perspective elevates this movie beyond most dramas and most horror films. Most movies are shot with a birds eye or director’s eye view of the action. This movie is firmly rooted in the reality of the characters. Because we don’t step outside the characters the movie feels less like a film and more like a real experience we’re enduring with these people.
There are a few things that make this movie truly frightening. One is that so much of what happens is left up to our own imaginations. When Starling is shown a photo of the aftermath of Lecter’s attack on a nurse, she is horrified and the event is spoken of in oblique tones, but we never see the photo. It’s the implication that scares. When two police are killed later in the movie, we see the aftermath of the killing. The bloody, horrifying, carnage is all we get to see. We are left to imagine how they got to that state. Whatever we come up with will be more haunting than any special effect we could see.
It’s also frightening to know that these characters are based on or inspired by real people. Real serial killers exist and the horrible things they have done are not too far off from the horrific things this movie touches on. Ghosts are scary. Vampires, monsters, and werewolves can all be scary, but there’s something far scarier in the evil real humans can inflict upon one another.
This is a well crafted movie. The script is like a tightly wound cable. It could snap at any moment. The direction is pitch perfect. Every frame perfectly constructed. The performances are gloriously engaging. The fear is real without a single jump scare. It’s scary, but it rarely feels like a horror movie. If you hate horror movies, this might be a good one for your Halloween. There are elements of true crime. There is scary stuff. There is a macabre fascination with the twisted psyches involved. It’s a great movie.
It’s my cup of tea. A+