Occasionally, there are films that truly defy the odds. These lucky films ultimately go beyond their trappings to reach a very personal, very intimate place that sticks with you long after the film is over. The horror genre is typically known as a genre of thrills and gore, films that keep you on the edge of your seat. Many horror films are forgotten quickly outside of buffs, but others, due to their power, linger on long after release. The Silence of the Lambs, the Best Picture winner of 1991, is one such film.
Even in its day, this film defied great odds. Released on Valentine's Day weekend that year, it won the main Five Oscars (Picture, Actor, Actress, Directing, Screenplay), only the third movie to do so, over an entire year after its release and after it had been released on VHS. The intense film had knocked out far more typical Oscar films in its way to win the gold, those being a musical, a sweeping emotional drama, a politically charged drama, and a gangster saga. But Silence of the Lambs was a horror film, which in addition to shocking thrills and set pieces, had a pulsing soul and conscience beneath it all. This is largely driven through the fledgling FBI agent, Clarice Starling, played beautifully well by Jodie Foster.
Foster's performance must have seemed like a revelation in 1991. Known for playing vibrant personalities since childhood, Foster fully disappears into the role so different from her usual screen persona. Clarice is a very reserved, haunted character, very sweet and vulnerable, but also brave and persistent. This is perhaps one of the most sympathetic characters ever put to film. The opening scenes show how hard it is for her. An orphan, she lost her beloved policeman father at a young age, and was forced to live with others, still terrified after many years by a slaughter of lambs she was unable to stop. In the present, she is distrusted by her fellow agents simply because she is a woman. Many of the male agents simply leer at her and look her over, treating her no better than a slab of meat in their casual sexism. But Clarice is devoted to her work and is assigned to the case of finding Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a notorious serial killer whose victims turn up without patches of skin and with moths in their throats. To help gain insight into the mind of the killer, Clarise meets with the jailed cannibal killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), in the film's second masterstroke.
Lecter, in other hands, could have just been an ordinary horror film figure, a cannibal who was just a lethal machine. Lecter does have a famously bloody, nasty, and flesh-chewing escape later on, but Hopkins' portrayal and the the script give shape and nuance to this role. Hopkins is definitely creepy, but he also has elegance, wit, unexpected dollops of humanity that help to make a three-dimensional character. He has only a fraction of the screentime of Foster, but in their interrogation scenes together, they make a brilliant screen pair that charges the film like an electric current. Lecter very quickly senses Clarice's humanity; you can tell that he truly likes her and wants to help her in his own cryptic way, Clarice , for her part, finds herself opening up to him and is able to find solace with her past, in addition to aid in figuring out her gruesome case.
This humanity helps ground the film in reality instead of becoming some sort of roadside freak show. Director Jonathan Demme shows considerable skill in making the setpieces pop out. Everyone remembers Hannibal's horrific escape, Buffalo Bill's creepy dance while his most recent captive is screaming in a nearby pit, the climatic showdown with screams, barks, heavy breathing, darkness, and night vision goggles. These scenes do not have to strain for effect, they are truly horrific and do not have to strain to be so. They are the type of pulsepounding moments that one keeps with them forever. But the audience also takes away from this film two thrillingly perfect performance, finely wrought pacing and scripting, intelligent dialogue, and emotional relevance. That is the secret behind its surprise Oscar sweep. We see a kindred spirit in Clarice, empathize with her, fear for her, care for her, desire the best for her. As such, this story becomes a universal story able to play anywhere. This is a film that defies time, age, background, and everything else possible. It is a masterpiece of its genre and one of the most vibrant, unexpected choices the Oscars have ever made.