02 April 2009

61. Silence of the Lambs

A masterpiece. We'll examine the writing first, and then move on to the rest of the piece.

The structure is solid. In the first five minutes or so, we're given everything: our main character, Clarice, is shown to be a go-getter, struggling to make a name for herself in a male-dominated world, the FBI. The plot moves forward when she is given a job, a task -- interview a serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, and try to figure out what he knows about another serial killer, Buffalo Bill. What's amazing about this set-up is that it is done with little dialogue; instead, we are shown through the camera and the cutting. Watch as Clarice struggles up a hill in our first shot, symbolizing her struggles. We sense her determination in climbing through an obstacle course. We are given exposition about her occupation by her superiors hat that reads "FBI". We are shown the male-domination of her chosen occupation by following her to an elevator and surrounding her with tall men. And we get to know about Buffalo Bill through newspaper clippings on a wall. Finally, a hard/match cut introduces us to Lecter's reputation as a monster, and then we descend down stairs into hell (blazed in red lights), the editing slower know, the camera in Clarice's POV as the tension increases and we meet Lecter.

And, of course, Lecter is given a great introduction and a long scene of juicy dialogue to chew on. After a paucity of dialogue, we are given a filmed conversation. Following that, we are given a short montage, changing the pace again.

"I'll help you catch him, Clarice." This question ends the first act, and then we go into the subplot at about 30 minutes in -- Buffalo Bill and his ruse, patterned after Ted Bundy's.

We get a new victim and a continuation of themes -- the importance of her father in her life, the misogyny of law enforcement, her determination to help the victims, with whom she identifies. The autopsy ends in a mystery, along with the revelation of the kidnapping gives haste to make a deal with Lecter. This happens when it should -- at one hour in. A change of location, which often accompanies the midpoint, is given when Lecter is moved.

"Some people will say we're in love." Lecter knows what the audience is just starting to discover: that, along with the horror, thriller, and crime drama elements of the film, it is also a very twisted love story, consummated finally but nothing more than a brush of fingers.

Again, where it should happen (at minute 70), we get what we've gotten in dribbles before: a complete backstory and motivation from our main character, which also explains the title. Once Lecter gets this, he is done with her and can move on with his task: escaping. We see this is a gory set piece, where Lecter does something clever and engages in a switcheroo, which audiences love and which fully embodies the Dark Night of the Soul, an 85th minute event. This event, along with Clarice continuing her investigation, start act 3. 2nd acts usually end with a question, and because this movie is so masterful, we actually get two: will Lecter get away with his escape? and will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill?

At 90 minutes in, she goes to Ohio to investigate. She visits a victim and is given the bad news -- they found the guy and she's 400 miles away. In beautiful cross-cutting, we get another switcheroo and realize they got the wrong guy, and that Clarice is at the real killer's house. And she is completely alone.

A final set-piece, this one mirroring her meeting of Lecter -- a descent into hell. Her motivation for this is layered: she knows there's a victim downstairs, she's eager to prove herself in a man's world after getting treated poorly for so long, she wants to finish the job she's started, because she's a pro.

And she does. And we get an epilogue to cool off.

The movie is structured with genuine craft and control. The writing is absolutely solid. What's more remarkable, though, is the directing, the cinematography, the editing, and the acting. Demme is fond of formal composition, where a character is framed perfectly and symmetrically, and he employed POV cameras and characters talking directly into the camera. This allows us into Clarice's plight and lets us empathize with her. It also, in her dealings with Lecter, shows us her connection with him. Watch the scene where she tells Lecter about the lambs: He asks, she starts telling him, and the camera goes through the bars so that the connection between the characters is complete. From then on, the scene plays in extreme close-ups of their faces, as they are closer to each other than each have been to any other human in a long time. We get match cuts to connect dots, the aforementioned cross-cutting of the climax, expert pacing taking us from long conversations to montages, and the release of a long crane shot for the finale.

And don't get me started on the acting...both leads won Oscars, and if you can find other actors that year (or many others) who deserved it more in tackling such potentially pulp material while being as intense, charming, likeable and determined, I'd love to hear it...


Blogger Austin Kleon said...

The book is equally brilliant -- I listened to it on audiotape driving back and forth between Cleveland and Oxford. What was really weird was that the reader was doing the voice of Lector EXACTLY like Anthony Hopkins. I checked the box, and it said, recorded in 1988. Is it just something about the sentences that leads to that voice? Too weird. LOVE this movie. Masterpiece, indeed.

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