It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
A fundamental difference between “The Silence of the Lambs” and its sequel, “Hannibal,” is that the former is frightening, involving and disturbing, while the latter is merely disturbing. It is easy enough to construct a geek show if you start with a cannibal. The secret of “Silence” is that it doesn't start with the cannibal--it arrives at him, through the eyes and minds of a young woman. “Silence of the Lambs” is the story of Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee played by Jodie Foster, and the story follows her without substantial interruption. Dr. Hannibal Lecter lurks at the heart of the story, a malevolent but somehow likable presence--likable because he likes Clarice, and helps her. But Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins, is the sideshow, and Clarice is in the center ring.
The popularity of Jonathan Demme's movie is likely to last as long as there is a market for being scared. Like “Nosferatu,” “Psycho” and “Halloween,” it illustrates that the best thrillers don't age. Fear is a universal emotion and a timeless one. But “Silence of the Lambs” is not merely a thrill show. It is also about two of the most memorable characters in movie history, Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, and their strange, strained relationship (“people will say we're in love,” Lecter cackles).
They share so much. Both are ostracized by the worlds they want to inhabit--Lecter, by the human race because he is a serial killer and a cannibal, and Clarice, by the law enforcement profession because she is a woman. Both feel powerless--Lecter because he is locked in a maximum security prison (and bound and gagged like King Kong when he is moved), and Clarice because she is surrounded by men who tower over her and fondle her with their eyes. Both use their powers of persuasion to escape from their traps--Lecter is able to rid himself of the pest in the next cell by talking him into choking on his own tongue, and Clarice is able to persuade Lecter to aid her in the search for the serial killer named Buffalo Bill. And both share similar childhood wounds. Lecter is touched when he learns that Clarice lost both her parents at an early age, was shipped off to relatives, was essentially an unloved orphan. And Lecter himself was a victim of child abuse (on the DVD commentary track, Demme says he regrets not underlining this more).
These parallel themes are mirrored by patterns in the visual strategy. Note that both Lecter in his prison cell and Buffalo Bill in his basement are arrived at by Starling after descending several flights of stairs and passing through several doors; they live in underworlds. Note the way the movie always seems to be looking at Clarice: The point-of-view camera takes the place of the scrutinizing men in her life, and when she enters dangerous spaces, it is there waiting for her instead of following her in. Note the consistent use of red, white and blue: not only in the FBI scenes, but also in the flag draped over the car in the storage shed, other flags in Bill's lair and even the graduation cake at the end (where the U.S. eagle in the frosting is a ghastly reminder of the way Lecter pinned a security guard spread-eagled to the walls of his cage).