Trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is exercising on the assault course when she receives word that her boss, Crawford (Scott Glenn), wishes to see her. Without stopping to change, she heads straight over to his office, although she still has to wait, giving her time to survey the news clippings on the wall, all of which concern a current case. The man they are trying to track is known only as Buffalo Bill, and he has been kidnapping and murdering young women around the West Virginia area. Crawford believes Starling can assist - but she must talk to someone first.
If you don't know who that someone is then you have somehow managed not to hear about the most famous villain of the nineties, and the film that influenced horrors and thrillers for decades to come. It started with Thomas Harris's bestselling novel, his follow-up to the equally bestselling Red Dragon, which was made into a flop as Manhunter during the eighties, but went on to gather a cult following once The Silence of the Lambs had become a sensation. The character who caught the public imagination in a way that had not in the previous film was Hannibal Lecter, played with matter of fact menace in the Michael Mann work but here more akin to the Demon King in panto.
Anthony Hopkins was the star bringing such gusto to what on the page had been far less showy, but his instincts had been correct: to convey the overwhelming threat of the character, it needed to be tempered with sly humour and a needling quality, so that we were aware even before his first scene was over that Lecter was capable of everything the audience, and the characters, were anxious about. That sequence where Clarice meets him in his dungeon-like cell is envisaged as some kind of perverse date, where they both want something from the other but have to negotiate to get it; Lecter claims he wants better privileges, like a window, and Clarice claims she wants a profile - but of Buffalo Bill, not the man before her.
That atmosphere of sinister sexuality ran through the whole film, but it was sinister because it was male. Clarice's femininity is both her strength and her liability as the men around her, and they are mostly men aside from Kasi Lemmons' rather pat best friend, exhibit a fascination with her that they barely understand - why is this woman so intent on braving such a masculine preserve of detection and investigation? They try to intimidate her, from Lecter to Crawford to, finally, Buffalo Bill, but due to a superb performance that gives only as much away as it needs to, Foster displays such reserves of strength that we can perceive she is the best person in this for saving her fellow females from the men.
This fear of the men reaches from small details like being chatted up when she's trying to work to the needs of the villains, both Lecter and Bill (Ted Levine). The former wishes to conquer Starling's mind for his own power games, the latter because he "covets" women to the extent that he has turned to drastic measures, yet again and again it's our heroine who illustrates that she knows her own mind, and those of her gender, better than any of the opposite sex. The Silence of the Lambs became the first horror movie to win the Best Picture Oscar, and more, yet the effect it had on genre entertainment was perhaps not as beneficial as one would like with the prevalence of groaning new clichés as the genius serial killer and the police procedural with gruesome trappings, but if you can look past the imitations and the parodies - not easy, granted - then the original was a fine example not only of adapting a cracking read, but bringing gravity to what could have been a simple, lurid thrill ride without being afraid to be darkly humorous, a mix director Jonathan Demme achieved with great poise. Music by Howard Shore.
American director with a exploitation beginnings who carved out a successful Hollywood career as a caring exponent of a variety of characters. Worked in the early 70s as a writer on films like Black Mama, White Mama before directing his first picture for producer Roger Corman, the women-in-prison gem Caged Heat. Demme's mainstream debut was the 1977 CB drama Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band), which were followed by such great films as the thriller Last Embrace, tenderhearted biopic Melvin and Howard, wartime drama Swing Shift, classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and black comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob.
Demme's Thomas Harris adaptation The Silence of the Lambs was one of 1991's most successful films, making Hannibal Lecter a household name, while the worthy AIDS drama Philadelphia was equally popular. Since then, Demme has floundered somewhat - Beloved and The Truth About Charlie were critical and commercial failures, although 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a box office hit. Rachel Getting Married also has its fans, though Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash was not a great one to go out on. He was also an advocate of the documentary form, especially music: his final release was a Justin Timberlake concert.