After scaring the wits out of millions, Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs joined It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest as one of the few movies to score Oscars in all five major categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay). Thereafter, the serial-killer movie became its own subgenre. And yet, with the possible exception of Seven, these movies—and Thomas Harris' subsequent novels and adaptations, for that matter—invariably ripped off all the wrong things, focusing less on psychology than on the grisly details of killers' artifacts and obsessions. Hiring Demme, surely among the warmest and most humane American directors, to handle such a violent story turned out to be a masterstroke of casting against type: He knew from his early years working for Roger Corman how to deliver the genre goods, but his empathy, particularly with regard to women, is what makes the film so enduring.
Though Anthony Hopkins' performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant sociopath who sees (and chews) through the rest of humanity, has always been the film's calling card, he may be its weakest link. (Brian Cox's less-celebrated Lecter from Manhunter projects a bored contempt for the species that's truer and more frightening.) A few scenes aside, the real focus is on Jodie Foster as an FBI trainee who uses Hopkins' psychological-profiling skills to help track down a serial killer named Buffalo Bill. As she paws her way closer to the suspect, who has claimed a politician's daughter (the equally strong Brooke Smith) as his latest hostage, Foster bravely asserts herself in a man's world, with Hopkins serving as merely the most ghoulish of many obstacles.
Working with a first-rate crew—Tak Fujimoto's expressive lighting design and Howard Shore's muscular score are particularly effective—Demme draws the audience close enough to Foster's perspective to share her sense of loneliness and vulnerability. The anecdote behind the title The Silence Of The Lambs suggests what it's like to be a compassionate being in a cruel world, with all the associated trials. Foster's journey makes the film a terrifying fable, and far more than the sum of its overflowing case file.
Key features: Nothing can touch the long-out-of-print Criterion edition, certainly not this promotional cash-in for the upcoming Hannibal Rising. But the two-disc set includes several passable making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, an interesting featurette on the score, and wacky outtakes highlighted by Hopkins' blood-soaked Rocky Balboa impersonation.