Movies like "The Silence of the Lambs" are very difficult to review. There's no question in my mind that many critics around the country will embrace this film as an excellent work - and the basis for that opinion is well-founded on several levels. Yet, at the same time, the subject matter is so gruesome and its presentation so graphic that, for me at least, its impact was muted.
That's not to say we're in "Friday the 13th" territory here. Though "Silence of the Lambs" is in many ways a high-gloss horror film, director Jonathan Demme pulls back on the gore in comparison to many modern movies in this arena. Yet, there is that scene where one man rips out another's tongue - with his teeth. And the moment when a police guard is skinned alive. And . . . well, you get the idea.On the plus side, there are two incredible performances - by Jodie Foster as an FBI trainee and Anthony Hopkins as a chilling psychiatrist who is also a cannibal serial killer.
The story has Foster as Clarice Starling, assigned by her boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to visit Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Hopkins) in a state hospital for the criminally insane to try to extract information from him that will help in the capture of another serial killer who's on the loose. This guy (played by Ted Levine) is nicknamed "Buffalo Bill" by the press; he likes to skin his young female victims and place moth larvae in their throats.
Though having a trainee assigned to this important a case seems unlikely, the idea is that she is so innocent and without guile that Lecter might let his defenses down long enough to help her out.
The ploy works as Lecter reveals that all he wants in exchange is a room with a view.
Soon Buffalo Bill has kidnapped the daughter of a powerful senator (Diane Baker - we haven't seen her for a while) and traps her in a deep well in the oddly cavernous basement of his otherwise normal-looking suburban tract house.
Will Clarice get there in time? Will she become Bill's next victim.
And what of Lecter, who has managed an escape? Will he come after Clarice now as well?
Screenwriter Ted Tally (who co-wrote "White Palace") has adapted Thomas Harris' best-selling novel with loads of rich, intelligent dialogue and the characters of Clarice and Lecter are wonderfully played by Foster and Hopkins, respectively. It's been a while since we've had a female character as fully developed as Clarice, especially one who, as the heroine, uses brains rather than brawn to solve a riddle. (Don't all you "Rambette" fans get too worried, however - Sigourney Weaver is shooting "Alien III" as we speak.)
And though director Jonathan Demme is better known for the wacky comedy of "Something Wild" and "Married to the Mob," with "Silence of the Lambs" he returns to his roots in a way - anyone remember his underrated Hitchcock-style thriller "Last Embrace"? - and the result is a chiller with a nice twist at the end.
Still, there are some rather silly plot holes here and the final quarter of the film turns into little more than a killer-hiding-in-the-dark horror yarn - not to mention the gore and gruesome atmosphere, which truly are relentless.
Suffice it to say there is much to admire here but beware if you are at all squeamish.
By the way, if you recognize the character of Lecter, it was also used in the 1986 thriller "Manhunter," based on another Harris novel, "Red Dragon."
"The Silence of the Lambs" is rated R for considerable violence, gore, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.