It still baffles me that so many people love this film. No, no, put away your pitchforks and douse your torches, I like this one a lot. However, it seems mainstream movie going opinion is that films about psychotic killers are utter trash, the stuff of pulpy horror. Beyond the idea that such an opinion is utter nonsense, this film proves that mature films about killers can be cool, classy, and crazy all at the same time. It’s like Psycho, but for the ‘90s.
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), is an up and coming FBI cadet. Her superior, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) puts her on a particularly gruesome case that involves talking to an imprisoned Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The FBI is looking for a killer called Bufalo Bill (Ted Levine), a killer they believe Lecter can point them towards. A once brilliant psychologist, Dr. Lecter is now as crazy as the people he once treated, a cannibal with a chilling demeanor.
And what makes Dr. Lecter such a disturbing and memorable character is that he’s not a normal crazy. He’s not a raving lunatic but an upper class sophisticate. He’s a brilliant man, the kind that societies tend to respect, but he’s left behind acceptable moral and social practices. This major contradiction makes him a deeply uncanny creature, seemingly banal but subtlety monstrous. And Anthony Hopkins brings the sophisticate killer to life. A lot of what makes him creepy is those memorable facial expressions and thee way he carries his voice.
This makes for a villain that is far scarier when we can see him. There’s even a scene where he’s in his cell immersed in darkness. It’s a tense scene as we can’t see him and he could be anywhere, but once the lights come on, the scene becomes even creepier. A lot of films rely on mystery and darkness to scare us, but Lecter himself is such a frightening idea that the idea of his very existence and the way he plays with people is far more frightening than the typical horror stalker killer.
And that’s actually where I think the film trips up on itself. Like, Manhunter, the film wants to give us the story of the killer and I don’t think it works. For one, the killer is given little screen-time and we don’t get to know him. For another, the threatened life is of little value to the viewer. However, it does have an excellent payoff in what is one of the best scenes of the movies. The heart of the film is not the search for the killer but the Clarice and Dr. Lecter relationship.
And Clarice is a good foil for Dr. Lecter in a weird way. Watching her grapple with Dr. Lecter and spar with him is fascinating. Hearing about her past gives us a great character sketch and we could see how she came to be an FBI cadet, something the film emphasizes as unusual for a women. And the film is well aware of her gender and it plays out in interesting ways throughout the film. Where I think the film might misstep her character’s presentation is in the few flashbacks that are redundant given the conversations she has with Dr. Lecter.
Before canning this one, I’d like to briefly discuss whether or not the film is a horror or thriller flick. To me, it’s obviously a horror film for a multitude of reasons. For one, it lingers on some graphic displays of decaying bodies and lingering on the gross and graphic is a characteristic of the horror genre. Also, the presentation of evil in this film is clearly aligned with the horror genre’s understanding of evil. Plus, it’s hard to get around the idea that a psychotic killer is absolutely rooted in the horror picture genre, Peeping Tom and Halloween being two examples.
I think people simply have come to label it as a thriller film because for some reason it’s perceived as a more acceptable and safer label. It’s okay to give a thriller film an Oscar, but heaven forbid you condone all that crap that turns kids into psychotic killers. They’ll be hell to pay. In any case, it’s a fantastic picture that disturbs and frightens without falling into cheap scares. It’s a genuinely freaky film that works more on the mental level than the visceral.