Film review of the psychological horror starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glenn.
Director: Jonathan Demme.
Cast & credits
Producers: Ronald M. Bozman, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt.
Writer: Ted Tally.
Camera: Tak Fujimoto.
Music: Howard Shore.
Sets: Kristi Zea.
Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Frankie Faison, Kasi Lemmons, Brooke Smith, Diane Baker, Charles Napier, Roger Corman, Chris Isaak.
Trainee FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Foster) is young, intelligent, ambitious and haunted by memories of her beloved father’s death when she was young. She jumps at the chance to interview the infamous Psychiatrist serial killer Dr Hannibal ‘the cannibal’ Lecter (Hopkins), now incarcerated in an asylum, to help the bureau track down the killer Buffalo Bill (Levine). Lecter agrees to help, but only in exchange for personal information about Starling’s background and childhood traumas. When Bill kidnaps the daughter of a Senator, the race is on to rescue her as quickly as possible…but only after Lecter demands more information from Starling.
One of only three movies to win all five of the main Oscars, Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay (the other two being It Happened One Night, 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, 1975), Demme’s modern day Gothic horror made a film star out of actor Hopkins, despite him having appeared in some high profile films for more than 20 years already.
The film is based on the novels of Thomas Harris, who explored the nature of human evil alongside the forensic, scientific methods used to crack the identities of the most heinous and twisted of people.
In this second instalment, evil meets the pure and good of Starling, who duly suffers for her diligence and heroism. Lecter, sniffing her naked ambition, exchanges information about the killer in return for a personal confession about her background. She enters into a psychological Faustian pact with this cannibalistic Mephistopheles, a dangerous series of unethical therapy sessions.
It was an ingenious solution therefore to house Lecter in a plexiglass fronted cell, as typical prison bars would have hindered the filming of their conversation. It’s physical transparency lends their encounters greater intimacy and makes common sense too, as he is less able to grab visitors and eat them.
Cameraman Fujimoto and Demme worked intuitively on this film – for most of the scene involving Starling, the camera is set at her eye level, letting us experience events from her perspective and making the men she encounters, whose ‘eyes move over her body’, seem even taller as they loom over her.
When filming her talking with people, they use medium or full close-ups as the camera switches between both, giving us immediate point of view, placing us directly into the conversation. We are trainee FBI Agents ourselves. This is also the best way to showcase Foster’s own brand of etheral, ghostly beauty. They would work together again on the Oscar-winning Philadelphia (1993).
The significance of the moths in the film is clearly stated by Lecter and mirrors the changes that not only the serial killer is attempting to undergo, but also that of other characters in the film. Starling turns from being a callow trainee into a fully fledged agent at the passing out ceremony. Catherine Martin won’t be the same human ever again after her experiences at the bottom of the killer’s well and Lecter himself emerges from years of being incarcerated to being a free man at leisure, blooming with a tan and blonde hair.
Foster and Hopkins deserved their Oscars, her second and his first. Foster, with an impeccable accent, mix of nervous and unsure movements and looks, but inner grit created a recognisably real heroine, flawed but perceptive and inherently trustworthy.
Hopkins uses far less technical tricks in his performance, but then his character is described as seldom moving or even speaking. None the less, that ‘metallic rasp’ lends a uniquely unsettling sound to his glib but penetrating insights and questions. The cold, unblinking stare in which he holds Starling’s attention is a hypnotically dissecting x-ray. When he does move, it has the most terrifying consequences, as the Memphis police find out.
One thing I noticed about this film is Starling’s clothing choices, greens and tweeds. They make her seem older than her years, but still fresh as if denoting she is still learning.