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Silence of the Lambs, The

MGM // R // March 3, 2009
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 20, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Note: Images from MGM's Collector's Edition DVD
The Silence of the Lambs will forever be the picture that follows Jonathan Demme around for the rest of his filmmaking career, even when he takes stabs at other, "lighter" dramas like Rachel Getting Married or more important ones like Philadelphia. And why wouldn't it? The universe revolving around Hannibal Lecter is a touchy one to capture on film, holding the possibility to be overdone (see Red Dragon) or too bizarre (see Hannibal). But Demme orchestrates his take on the cannibalistic doctor with just the right blend of grotesqueness and compelling theatricality, coming together into a maddening exercise in dramatic horror that scrambles our neurological status quo with each time we visit the "good doctor". Demme's audience certainly wasn't the only ones left captivated and suitably disturbed: being one of the few films to win all five of the major honors at the Academy Awards, The Silence of the Lambs remains -- and will remain -- just as nerve-addling and tangibly frightening as ever.

It's always interesting to reflect on The Silence of the Lambs and remember that, though terribly iconic and singular, it's a follow-up of sorts to Micheal Mann's 1984 thriller, Manhunter, and an adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel "The Silence of the Lambs", a sequel to the original novel "Red Dragon". Hannibal Lecter existed long before Anthony Hopkins took the reins, first given a more debonair cinematic air by a criminally-overlooked turn from Brian Cox, while the primary protagonists in this story arc was Will Graham at first, brought to life by the likes of William Petersen and Edward Norton. Lecter's legacy of secondhand FBI assistance and cat-and-mouse psycho play with its agents has understandably taken many tones over the years.

But when we think about Hannibal Lecter, we instantly think of Anthony Hopkins toying with Jodie Foster's Clarice like a predacious cat with its victim. There's a reason for that: The Silence of the Lambs brings a director adept at communicating human emotion under dire circumstances together with the haunting inhumanity penned by story adapter Ted Tally. We're introduced to Clarice Starling (Foster), an up-and-coming FBI student who has fallen into a dense and disturbing case involving psychotic serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). She begins her involvement by innocently interviewing Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) about his knowledge of Bill, but it slowly evolves into a "quid pro quo" dance with the macabre as Lecter points her into specific directions that will allow her -- and only her -- to solve the paramount case.

It takes the viewer into a world teeming with bizarre psychoses, one that drives us to feel compelled to relish in its shiver-inducing nature. Jonathan Demme not only appreciates the partition between fear and indulgence, but he takes his involvement with character nuance and clashes it all together into a bleak yet thoroughly engaging atmosphere. The Silence of the Lambs exists in a shadowy, antithetic environment filled with the slaughterings of innocent women and the bloodthirsty nature of the criminally insane, yet it never forgets to open doors that allow us to comprehend exactly what's going on in their minds -- and not in a blatantly monstrous way, but more in a contorted humanistic light that drives real fear into our bones. We get the quakes from mythical monsters that go "bump" in our dreams, but the true fright we feel exists in the monsters that walk the earth with us.

As Starling begins her trip down the rabbit hole by way of Lecter's profiling of Buffalo Bill, it's clear that all of these odd underlying layers will largely rely on the dynamic that the FBI student develops with them. A few years out of her show-stealing (and show-making, to be frank) performance in The Accused, Jodie Foster takes her plummet into the mind of a serial killer and delivers a performance filled with lamb-like jitters and compelling ambiguity between masculinity and femininity. Her Clarice Starling is strong enough to back as a heroine, yet there's coyness behind her strained vigor that makes her dance with Lecter compelling and, more importantly, involving enough to cement her post-Taxi Driver and Accused status as a powerhouse actress.

Then, there's Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, who's only on-screen for a nudge over sixteen minutes in The Silence of the Lambs. It's amazing to think that such a seminal entity could be so transient in the film that made him an everyday name alongside horror greats like Patrick Bateman and Jack Torrance. But his time on screen never feels short-lived, that's for certain; as he gazes through his acrylic glass screen and mutters to us of eating a man's liver with a "can of fava beans and a nice Chianti", he shatters that fourth wall separating him from the audience in a way that gives us direct, eye-to-eye interaction with a well-mannered psychopath. It's a cinematic luxury that we don't get to indulge in very often, especially in a natural and effective fashion. His glances and bone-chilling words, though fleeting as they might be, float in our minds across the entire film as the contained, docile voice of one of many possible variations of Buffalo Bill's psyche -- a killer on the loose in the backwater crevices of southern America, potentially right around the corner of anyone's neighborhood.

Though Foster faultlessly captures the essence of an intelligent rookie FBI agent on the prowl and Hopkins, well, "makes" Hannibal Lecter, it's the times when they're face-to-face that transcends The Silence of the Lambs into a lasting piece of filmmaking. Their characters, when separate, are compelling in their own right, but it's in the ways that they make slight alterations in their personalities that create the film's signature sensations of vagueness in character archetypes. Each element surrounding Demme's design in capturing their dialogue, from Badlands cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's photography to the stellar emphasis on long pauses in Craig McKay's editing, are impeccable, but it's the actors' subtle shifts in power struggle that grips us repeatedly in their startling-captured exchanges.

Once we follow Starling outside of the confines of Lecter's cell, there's a tense, blood-curdling air about her chase for Buffalo Bill that reinforces a sense of graspable danger. As we watch her combine forensic talent with Lecter's clues, it becomes a downright thrilling procedural that never feels formulaic and remains exhilarating up until its expertly executed conclusion. All along the way, The Silence of the Lambs adorns her trials and tribulations with a medley of characters to play off of, from the sagely tutelage of FBI bigwig Jack Crawford (Scott Glen) to the quirky acts of sexual aggression from Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald). They emphasize the near-androgynous nature of Starling's persona, painting her dual-edged innocuous demeanor into an intriguing character study.

The Silence of the Lambs taps heavily into a parallel between Starling and the "lamb" that she speaks of during arguably the most prolific character moment in the film, one that gives us a subtle reminder that she's something of an puerile entity transforming into an investigator. It's not the only splash of symbolism used in the film to illustrate the characters, as the metamorphosis of a demented mind repeatedly stands out with the focus on Death's Head Moths later in the film. They circulate around Buffalo Bill's character, a perfect example of the danger that arises when a deviant blossoms into a perverse serial killer. Yet the metamorphosis concepts also circle around Starling as the film presses forward, which continues the nerve-racking mechanic of balancing humanity with the killer's mental instability.

There's a world of depth at your fingertips underneath The Silence of the Lambs -- about as deep as you really want to dive into the criminal mind -- but it's first and foremost an exercise in skillfully crafted suspense. An innocent-yet-adept protagonist, a worthy villain, and a series of aptly strung-together clues wind tightly around the dangerously hypnotic presence of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, building into one of cinema's more unique dynamics. Diving into the ominous mind of a killer isn't the most pleasant experience in the world, but it's certainly captivating in the eyes of a daring, young FBI agent willing to weave through a thrill-a-minute labyrinth to stop one. It's Jonathan Demme's call-to-fame, and a tour de force in the horror genre that'll hold on to its unnerving presence for years to come.

The Blu-ray:

The Silence of the Lambs marks a first in my Blu-ray ventures, as MGM has decided to package this significant release in a eco-friendly case -- with large gaps opened underneath the disc and on the left flap. Recycling and resource conservancy is a good thing, but it's a bit of a bummer to learn that indulging in a premium product results in a artwork-hazardous presentation. It's certainly a far cry from the beautiful two-disc Collector's Edition released a few years back, one complete with RSVP recipe cards and a nice booklet inside.

Video and Audio:

The Silence of the Lambs has had a fairly extensive history on the home video front, ranging from Criterion's Laserdisc and early DVD days to MGM's recent entries. With each, it's been difficult to rustle up a perfect image, as it contains a load of rather awkward contrast and sharpness scenes that make it difficult to nail down a proper presentation. MGM's 1080p MPEG-2 encode of the 1.85:1 image takes a step above the recent Collector's Edition in handling some of The Silence of the Lambs' trickier points in lighting and detail, while exercising some surprising instances of high-definition polish. The color timing is largely similar to the recent DVD release, but with a tighter grasp on gradation and more natural skin tones. Many of the bright colors in the older release, like the greens in grass outside of the FBI headquarters, are mildly toned down and rendered with more of an expected, natural "pop".

Detail is also improved in many scenes, showing off little particulars like the pencil strokes in Lecter's drawings in his cell and the text in the Buffalo Bill newspapers in Crawford's office. But then there are also some real exercises in dimensionality and inky contrast rendering that make the image pop much more than anticipated, referencing a good portion of the close-ups and rack focuses in Tak Fujimoto's cinematography. More importantly, it handles these improvements through a fairly thick veil of film grain without showcasing any evidence of edge enhancement or noise reduction (maybe a smidge of lackluster smearing against a few facial textures, like in Foster and Heald's second conversation). Keep in mind that The Silence of the Lambs' image is an exercise in refinement on an already-strong rendering of some tough visuals, but the steps that this Blu-ray transfer takes over its SD counterpart are noteworthy enough for admirers of Demme's adaptation.

The same sort of "mild, yet noticeable" improvement can be noted for the jump from a 5.1 Dolby Digital sound option to the DTS HD Master Audio track. The Silence of the Lambs focuses primarily on atmosphere, dialogue, and Howard Shore's fantastic score, all of which receive an echoic and more dynamic presentation on this Blu-ray disc. Verbal clarity gets a velvety bump in transparency, while atmospheric effects like the clanks and thuds in the "Mofet" storage trailer and the sounds of bloody smacks all receive a substantial boost. Shore's score, however, receives the most robust facelift, filling the speakers with absurdly haunting potency that hits all of the crescendos and ranged pitches with top-shelf clarity. It's not an overwhelmingly dynamic sound design by nature, but it receives healthy boost in clarity and atmosphere above the previous presentation. Subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish, Korean, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), and Thai (Other), while sound options are also available in French and Spanish 5.1 tracks and a Thai 2.0 track.

Special Features:

Breaking the Silence (Feature Length, MPEG-2):
This featurette, though titled the exact same as one of the pieces on the previous disc, is actually a Blu-ray exclusive PiP "commentary" that covers many of the same topics. It features interview time with the stars appearing alongside the MPEG-2 version of the film, presented in a semi-Polaroid frame with a black background in the lower-right corner of the screen. On the other side of the image, graphics with the appearance of case files pop out to give us factual tidbits on the filmmaking process and historical accuracy tidbits. It's a dynamic and intriguing supplement that, though largely similar, is much more in-depth than its SD counterpart. Jodie Foster really takes the reins in painting the process, while Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, and Anthony Heald's added tidbits work largely as insightful anecdotes from a commentary. Note: The three-part Jonathan Demme/Jodie Foster series of documentaries from the 2006 release have NOT been carried over in their previous form.

Understanding the Madness (19:35, HD AVC):
Taking time out to discuss the reality underneath The Silence of the Lambs' psychopathic nature, covering criminal profiling with like-minded sociopaths and the process of gathering the material used to determining the elements of the killer's motives and decisions (returning to the crime scene, attending the funerals, psychological analysis, etc). This featurette predominately features interview time with experts and authors with minimal full-screen footage from the film spliced in. A similar folder graphic to Breaking the Silence adorns their interview time with PiP scenes from the film along the side. Those who are suckers for expert dialogue on sensitive subject matter (like myself) will really enjoy their examinations and explanations on the criminal mind.

Inside the Labyrinth: Making of The Silence of the Lambs (1:06:28, SD MPEG-2):
Taken from the previous SD release, this in-depth collage of film footage and interview time with the actors and filmmakers takes a traditional assembly featurette poise. It covers the fascination with the criminal mind, the potential of Gene Hackman potentially being director and star of the feature, and the faith that Orion placed in Jonathan Demme to make the film. There's also a lot of outstanding behind-the-scenes footage, especially around Anthony Hopkins' mask and other concentrations on production design and art concepts. Furthermore, it dives into the casting, award recognition, and severe backlash that the film garnished. Sadly, it's encoded as a stretched full-frame image, which will rely on your screen's capacity to present these images in alternate image options.

The Silence of the Lambs: Page to Screen (41:17, SD MPEG-2):
Also taken direct from the SD release in the same stretched full-frame presentation, this two-part 2002 documentary -- featuring Peter Gallagher as the host -- blends interview footage with voiced excerpts from the script/book. It takes a largely analytical take on diving into the film, from the nature of Buffalo Bill's conglomeration between several different killers as well as Demme's approach to picking the right Hannibal Lecter to present the book's material.

Scoring the Silence (16:00, SD MPEG-2):
Scoring the Silence covers Howard Shore's composition of the film's superbly haunting score. Concentration falls on scene-by-scene commentary from Shore on his desires for the mood in specific turns in the film, connecting them all into the breathtaking and textile accompaniment.

Original 1991 "Making of" Featurette (8:07, SD MPEG-2):
Largely available for nostalgia value, this featurette redundantly covers most of the material already covered -- but captures the actors exactly as they were during the film's shooting.

Also available are a wide array of Deleted Scenes (20:29) that seem like wise edits that focus on redundancy, an Outtakes Reel (1:46), the previously-available Anthony Hopkins' Phone Message (:34), and a slew of trailers -- TV Spots (5:55), an outstanding Theatrical Trailer (1:49, AVC HD), and a anamorphic Teaser Trailer (1:02, SD MPEG-2).

Final Thoughts:

The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme's pinnacle piece of filmmaking and a masterwork of horror, runs just about as close to faultlessness as you can get with this level of bleak, disturbing material. Because of Demme's direction and an appropriate script from Ted Tally, there's a string of compelling human rhythm present in its suspense-based pulse that keeps it unnerving from start to finish. Of course, Foster and Hopkins are both brilliant in their best performances from the '90s, but the scenes that they share together -- as brief as they might be -- seem somehow timeless as we gaze upon their electric rapport with bated breath. Suspense really doesn't get much better than this, but neither does its perception of the criminal mind's wildly disturbing nature.

MGM's Blu-ray presentation of The Silence of the Lambs places emphasis on noticeable refinements to the already strong aural and visual presentation from 2006's Collector's Edition DVD. Those who already own that edition will be missing out on a great addition of a semi-interactive PiP commentary feature, along with the boost in digital presentation. Casual appreciators of the film might want to stick with the DVD, but if you either don't have MGM's Collector's Edition or are a strong admirer to the screenwriting, directorial, and acting prowess in The Silence of the Lambs, then this is a overwhelmingly Highly Recommended Blu-ray of one of cinema's finest works.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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