The Silence of the Lambs ★★★★½

I haven't watched this since I was a teenager, and it's gobsmacking how much of it flew over my head, from the minor (my subsequent discovery and deep love affair with The Fall makes the climactic use of "Hip Priest" all the more wild and unnerving) to the major: how deftly the film uses close-ups to drive the bulk of its action through emotion. Watch the way that Demme and Fujimoto approach Clarice's interactions with Lecter, predominantly a series of close-ups on both that scan the imperious smugness of Hannibal and, more vividly, a combination of fear, curiosity and, when Hannibal picks apart her insecurities, both anguish and a kind of defiant joy in having her hangups pointed out and dissipated. In a strange way, Hannibal returns to his old job as a therapist with Clarice, and her own readily apparent ability to self-examine so visibly impresses the mad doctor that he cannot help but emanate a genuine appreciation for her.

Where Manhunter fetishized the procedural process of forensics to such an obsessive degree it basically grandfathered an entire genre of TV a generation later, The Silence of the Lambs is less about the method of uncovering the truth than the emotional triumph of realizing that you've cracked something. Will Graham could empathize with a killer to the extent that he worried about slipping into their psychosis (an idea more deeply developed in Bryan Fuller's TV show than Mann's film, where the idea floats subliminally in Will's PTSD), but Clarice is more attuned to the victims, understanding the killer second by relating to his targets first.

(I was also struck this time by the way that both she and her female colleague marvel at the way Senator Martin appeals to Buffalo Bill to release her daughter, both women admiring the way that the politician repeatedly humanizes her daughter rather than simply begging or threatening, recognizing the tactic as a means of asserting her child as not merely an object to be preyed upon. It appears to have some impact based on a subsequent scene in Bill's lair, where Catherine is seen in a quasi-POV close-up begging for her life and a reverse medium-close-up of Bill betraying some emotion at her screams before the camera pulls back as his resolve re-asserts itself and he loudly mocks her to suppress his own misgivings.)

It's also just an utterly fucking scary movie, from that dank basement in the mental hospital where madness hangs in the stale air like the stench of putrefaction to the storage locker that radiates dark secrets to Bill's own lair, subject to a cat-and-mouse chase so intensely disturbing that it's still hard to watch. Both Levine and Hopkins give phenomenal, wildly different performances of savagery. Levine embodies an inchoate desire for change, one filtered through dicey and unresolved gender politics but most vividly expressed when Clarice shows up at his door and his own fear of discovery morphs into a strange kind of tittering excitement when he realizes that she has pieced together who he really is. Like Clarice with Hannibal, Bill cannot help but feel a kind of relief at being found out, even as it makes him vulnerable. Hopkins, meanwhile, turns in one of the great operatic depictions of intelligent evil, impressively managing to be hammier than Christmas dinner while never raising his voice and moving with a terrible calm even at the peak of Hannibal's violence. Mann and Brian Cox molded Hannibal five years earlier on real serial killers and made Lecter a brilliant but emotionless void; Hopkins magnifies the curious allure of such a character, the way that you almost want to try and withstand his abuse and possible atrocity just to see if you might be one of the lucky ones who earns even a modicum of his respect. The father/daughter rapport between Hannibal and Clarice is the lifeblood of the film, sustaining Hopkins' performance well beyond its modest screen time, and it helps to cement the film as arguably the most subtly observed, character-driven horror movie of its era, if many of any time could be said to approach it.