'Silence of Lambs' craftily envelops and seduces viewers


February 14, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Valentine's Day may never be the same.

Jonathan Demme's powerful "Silence of the Lambs," opening today in a grand gesture of macabre taste, is rose-red with blood and blue-black with bruise; it's chocolate candy for the reptile part of the brain.

Working from Thomas Harris' shocking and very scary novel, Demme goes straight to the heart of madness. The movie is at its queasy, mesmerizing best as it explores the world of the sexually disturbed sociopath who wants not merely to kill but to obliterate with the baroque flamboyance of a Picasso.

The plot is simple enough. A grotesque monster named "Buffalo Bill" has killed and flayed five women. Conventional investigatory techniques lead nowhere, but the one authority who might be able to decipher the clues, psychiatrist Hannibal Lector, won't .. assist the FBI. Why? Because he's psycho, too.

Thus the FBI, ably represented by Scott Glenn, selects a trainee to go interview Hannibal, on the ruthless theory that the killer may somehow be enchanted by this nubile, defenseless young thing.

The young agent is played by Jodie Foster, and Dr. Lector by Anthony Hopkins. Their odd-couple show is the most stunning asset of "Silence of the Lambs."

He's an ugly little toad with bright eyes and a mind that is as gifted as it is liberated from conventional morality. The terrible thing is that in his seething brilliance (and this is the film's queasiest assertion), he's a rather attractive person.

For her part, Foster is brimful of willingness to face the unfaceable. Demme gives her considerable psychic baggage on her own. She is willing to undergo the ultimate debasement in her own quest to save the "lambs" from the slaughter; it's inherited from a father, a cop who caught a bullet for his troubles.

Doctor and student; father and daughter; master and apprentice; voyagers through horror. The relationship is a terrible journey toward terrible knowledge and Demme manages to infuse it with the kind of messianic geekiness that is as fascinating as it is repulsive. We feel the slow process of envelopment and seduction.

The melodramatic devices that surround this central conceit are efficient. Buffalo Bill has kidnapped a Senator's daughter, and since he starves his victims for three days before the atrocity, that 72-hour time frame drives the movie.

As good as this movie is, I can't say it is any better than Michael Mann's "Manhunter," based on another Harris novel. Both flourish to the degree they are able to re-create the mind-set of their malformed characters; it's a swell place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there.

@Silence of the Lambs'

Starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.

Directed by Jonathan Demme.

Released by orion.

Rated R.


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