There's nothing in and of itself excessively shocking about The Silence of the Lambs. It's a gory, grotty thriller that just enough of a literary sheen to it - it was based on a best-selling crime novel that could at least pretend to be somewhere in the wheelhouse of classy fiction, thanks to author Thomas Harris's background in journalism and the book's good reviews - that it could snag some reasonably noteworthy talent in front of the camera: reliable character actor Scott Glenn, stage-trained British curiosity Anthony Hopkins, and most importantly, child actor-turned-Oscar winner Jodie Foster, all of them the kind of semi-stars who could provide a patina of "this is a real movie" without costing very much or necessarily being able to say "hell no" to a decent-sized paycheck for a well-heeled genre film. The director, Jonathan Demme, had some solid critical successes behind him for a run of pawky comedies, and a demonstrated rapport with performers - he'd pushed several of them to Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and Mary Steenburgen to a win, for Melvin and Howard - though it seems clear enough that what recommended him to the producers was his time in the trenches under Roger Corman.

For this is, really, a whole lot like an unusually tony Corman film. It's an openly lurid thriller with cannibalism and transsexualism in it, and even if it is actually not "about" either of those things, those were how it was sold upon its knowingly ironic release on Valentine's Day, 1991. Taken from the right angle - and honestly, most of the angles are the right one in this case - it's one of those shabby little B-shockers that happen to get a little more money and a slightly bigger release platform than most, thanks to the efforts of the canny, much-missed distributor and producer Orion Pictures, which was at that time hurtling towards bankruptcy (Silence was, in fact, Orion's last hurrah before bankruptcy hit and the company spent the rest of the '90s shuttling from small-budget flops to co-productions with actual studios to total irrelevance). Hell, that release date alone...! We still get a film or two like that most winters, something that looks a little too "real" to be ignored but can't really hide the fact that it's pretty much just a trashy genre film that got a little big for its britches, for good or ill.

A quarter of a century later, we know of course that whatever it apparently is, the position of The Silence of the Lambs in the marketplace and in society is vastly beyond anything else that occupies its same apparent niche. The film was the pop culture talking point of the first half of 1991, and remains such an important touchstone years later that this R-rated cannibal-driven serial killer horror film could be referenced in a 2015 animated British movie for toddlers. It permeated the American psyche so successfully that when the Academy Award nominations were announced one year and five days later, Silence was up for seven of them, including Best Picture, overcoming the deliriously insurmountable odds of not just its release date (in the 41 years that simultaneous nationwide releases have been the norm, there have been 233 Best Picture nominees, of which a grand total of four have been released in the first two months of the year: Taxi Driver, Witness, and Hannah and Her Sisters are the others)* but even more significantly, its genre (it is one of only five horror movies ever nominated for that award in the 88 years of its existence, and that's if we're generous enough to count both Jaws and Black Swan as "horror", alongside the inarguable cases of The Exorcist and The Sixth Sense). Even more impressively, it won that award; most impressively of all, it became the third of only three films ever to sweep Oscar's "Big Five" of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and a Screenplay category (It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are the other two, and now I'm done peppering you with Oscar trivia).

Most of my lifetime later, I remain at a complete loss to explain what it was about this film that drove it to such massive Zeitgeist success. There is a parsimonious answer, of course, which is that The Silence of the Lambs is an exquisite piece of filmmaking in which basically not one single thing goes wrong at any point, but too many great films have been met with a hearty collective "eh" for me to buy that. But it can't all be the "fava beans and a nice Chianti" line, can it? It just can't.

Let's leave that question to future generations. I would instead return you to the only actually germane thing I've said so far in this review: The Silence of the Lambs is a perfect movie, or the closest thing to it, representing the work of many extremely talented people on both sides of the camera, who have all done much that is exemplary in their careers, and almost all of whom are in the very all-time best form here (of all the important names on the film's cast and crew list, the only one for whom I wouldn't reflexively call this the best work of their career is Hopkins). The film has been shot with just about the most deceptively cunning cinematography of the 1990s (Tak Fujimoto, who is never given his due despite being one of the multiple photographers of Badlands and pitching in on the beautiful second-unit photography in Star Wars, insanely and unfairly missed out on an Oscar nod here), edited with laser-sharp focus down to the most surgically precise cuts in both the big splashy "look at this here cross-cutting!" moments and the subdued conversation scenes alike (Craig McKay did manage to swing a nomination, fairly losing to JFK), and scored with melancholy menace by Howard Shore at his most unexpectedly atmospheric and hauntingly minor. The production design by Kristi Zea has to occupy something like four entirely different generic tonalities, while making all of them feel like the same unified world. And she does it perfectly, giving us the chilly stiffness of government buildings, the Expressionism-meets-Bauhaus delirium of the underground chamber where Hopkins' Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter skulks around, the '70s-realist shagginess of the rural towns and houses scattered throughout the film, and the repulsive haunted house where the killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) keeps his victims in an ancient-looking pit while surrounding himself with morbid physical expressions of his broken psyche, the obvious inspiration for movie serial killer dens for an entire generation to follow (even in the mid-2010s, I think it's merely accurate to say that the genre hasn't shaken off the stylistic impact of Bill's house of horrors. And why should it? When you get perfection, you stick with it).

And now, let's take a quick breather: do I actually need to recap the plot of The Silence of the Lambs at all? Let's assume that I do, and here's how it goes: Clarice Starling (Foster) is just about done with training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, when she gets called in by Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the Bureau's Behavioral Science Unit. He's at present hopelessly tangled up in the "Buffalo Bill case", trying to track down a killer operating through a wide swatch of the central U.S., whose M.O. involves murdering and skinning overweight young women. Hoping to put together a dossier on serial killer behavior, Crawford has been interviewing the various specimens he has access to, but man-eating psychiatrist Dr. Lecter has remained a tough nut to crack. Crawford's giving the eager-to-succeed Starling, who openly desires to become his protΓ©gΓ©, this chance to impress him, and she leaps for it.

It only takes one meeting with the oily Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), who leeringly describes her as "just [Lecter's] taste", for it to become clear that Crawford was up to some mischief, but the extent of that mischief is only revealed after her first, deeply unsettling interview with the charismatically snake-like Lecter: Crawford is convinced that Lecter knows about Buffalo Bill's real identity, and was using the quick-witted and appealing Starling as his bait to trap the superlatively intelligent Lecter. And the trap seems to have worked, with the psychopath expressing an obvious fascination with Starling that she responds to with a queasy mixture of steel will and a propensity for accidentally telling Lecter every last thing he wants to know about her. Meanwhile, the hunt for Buffalo Bill is about to leap into overdrive: his latest victim, a helpful young woman named Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) who decides to help the wrong poor old guy with a broken arm get his furniture into a moving van, is also the daughter Senator Ruth Martin of Tennessee (Diane Baker). And this puts an enormous political pressure on the FBI to crack the case within 72 hours, which in turn means that Chilton, Crawford, and Starling herself all start to act a little bit too desperately towards Lecter, who is enough of a supernumerary genius to figure out a stupendously improbable and yet foolproof plan for escape, while leaving Starling with just barely enough hints that he can trust her to continue impressing the hell out of him with her insight and fortitude, and stop Bill in time to save Catherine.

Not least among the film's many charms is how beautifully it manages to be all things to all viewers. Or at least both things to two different kinds of viewers. I do not know if I can name another film that manages to serve the needs of being not just a genre picture, but a picture in a particularly slovenly vein - one of the main characters is a cannibal, I remind you, and cannibal movies include some of the sleaziest trash in the history of the medium - but also of being such a smart and effective drama of social and human issues that the goddamned Academy felt compelled to give it the Holy Quintet of Oscars. The film is so perfectly balanced that I don't even know if I should call it a really great and intense crime thriller/horror film with exorbitantly pronounced feminist overtones, or the study of a woman asserting herself in the face of almost unanimous male condescension and harassment, as expressed against the backdrop of a serial killer hunt.

For no mistake about it: The Silence of the Lambs is deep-down invested in exploring what it means that Starling is a woman, hunting a man who kills women (who, in fact, wants to be a woman, which adds an additional layer that I'm not sure that I can tease out properly), while being treated in a shabby way by all the men she encounters. Not just the obvious things, like Chilton's lounge-lizard attempts at seduction, or the incompetent flirtation Starling has to endure from an entomologist, or the way that a whole room full of cops gape at her like an alien when she observes that maybe they should treat the mutilated corpse of a dead young woman with some respect and dignity. Even Crawford, who treats her with a relative plethora of kindness (Glenn is the only male actor in the movie who plays things like "sympathy" or "worry" or "respect" towards Foster while also not being a literal psychopath) is revealed pretty early on as conceiving her identity as a woman as something he can wield, against her will, as a device for leveraging Lecter. This is, I think, the unvoiced and under-appreciated reason that the Starling-Lecter relationship, that beating black heart which powers the whole of the movie, makes sense from her side: he's the only male she encounters who seems genuinely engaged by her as an intellectually capable being with her own valid identity and inner life.

Most of this is merely implicit in Ted Tally's screenplay, and it's only teased out wordlessly through Demme's invisibly sophisticated directing, and Foster's immaculate performance. It's the reason why a film that could not be more blaring and blatant in its insistence on constantly impugning male power structures and violence against women does not ever feel like it has a message for us, or cares if we learn the slightest lesson. Oh, sure, there are obvious touches, like the celebrated shot in which the diminutive Foster is towered over by men in an elevator, or the moment where Starling chews out Crawford for strategically patronising her in front of local cops. Mostly, though, this is all carried on a virtually subliminal level enabled only because Demme can completely trust Foster to thrive when he drops her into a long, unyielding close-up, and because Foster uses every single movement and line to explain where Starling came from and where she's going, and how the character herself is painfully aware that she's making performative choices in order to successfully exist in this male-dominated world. The scene following Crawford's aforementioned gesture of paternalistic patronsing is followed by an intensely discomfiting sequence in which medium shots of the cops staring at Starling are intercut with a claustrophobically tight close-up of Foster, making frustrated, defensive evaluations about each of them, all through her eyes and slightly twitching mouth. Or a pair of beautiful line deliveries during her first meeting with Lecter, some of the best in a movie rotten with great line deliveries: "He said 'I can smell your cunt'", and "Well, it started as a bad joke in Kansas City Homicide, they said, 'This one likes to skin his humps'" - both of them attempts to communicate a crudely sexual phrase secondhand, with Foster locking her voice into a deadened, mechanical register (you can hear the exact moment she shifts gears in the second line) as a pitch-perfect way of depicting one of Starling's defense mechanism for being put into a degrading position.

When it's not doing all of that - scratch that, even as it's doing all of that - The Silence of the Lambs is a superb mystery, thriller, and psychological horror film: three modes that overlap without necessarily matching each other, and it's only "true horror" in a small enough number of scenes that it's easy to see why the Academy could delude themselves into thinking it was something else (but those scenes - hello. A wee tiny Tim Brayton was enthusiastically cold-cocked into a lifelong fascination with gore effects after seeing that gutted corpse tied to the bars of a cell with florid, giallo-esque backlighting at the perhaps unprepared age of 12). As a mystery, the film plays unbelievably fair, giving us exactly what Starling gets, exactly when she gets it, and just a tiny bit more insight into Buffalo Bill's actions; the only times it misleads us are for thrilling effect, when the editing plays with our heads to build to a nice shock moment, first in Lecter's escape, second in the bravura lead-up to Starling's face-to-face with Bill (a sleight-of-hand sequence that's up with the very best of Hitchcock). There is nothing anywhere else in Demme's filmography, before or since this movie, to suggest that he had this level of control over pacing and tension - his stock in trade are generous character dramas frequently augmented by cunning musical choices, which is perhaps why The Silence of the Lambs goes out of its way to humanise Catherine Martin as such a sympathetic, resourceful figure, why it manages to make Lecter feel completely comprehensible despite his almost Lovecraftian detachment from basic human emotions, and why "Goodbye Horses" will always make people think of filth and decayed human pieces and raving madness for the rest of time.

The highlight of the film in all its registers is, of course, the relationship between Starling and Lecter, and what can a person say on top of what's been said? Starling's gradual evolution from trying to play Lecter while being humiliated by him, to successfully getting under his skin at the price of him getting under hers, and finally bearing her soul because she has discovered that this soulless monster is the only human in her life who is actually interested in her feelings, even if it's from a strictly predatory perspective, is the best part of the film and Foster's performance, the spine that makes this movie more truly about Starling's evolution into someone who can face down the ugliness of the world than a mere FBI procedural. Hopkins's performance is High Camp, and I am madly in love with it. He's terrible in the not-to-be-mentioned sequels, of course, and I know that Brian Cox's more sullen, constrained version of the character in Michael Mann's coolly observational Manhunter from 1986 has fans that consider it much better than what Hopkins is up to, but I am surely at a loss to understand why (of note: Manhunter flopped so hard that its unfailingly mercenary producer, Dino De Laurentiis, made one of the most atrociously stupid mistakes of his career in response: he let Orion have the rights to the sequel novel for free). But in this film, he is a miracle of film-imbalancing weirdness. He is an exemplary case of a villain motivated entirely by his own amusement, with his loopy deliveries and sarcastic broadsides playing like fully calculated efforts to antagonise other characters simply because it's a way to stave off boredom. His serpentine gazes, his hypnotically colorful way of speaking; these are the weapons of an animal batting around its prey before going in for the kill (it's this quality to Hopkins that makes his scenes with Foster land so beautifully: his fascination with something that's neither prey nor a fellow predator, the first mental stimulus in eight years that he can actually test himself against). He is the human-shaped embodiment of Cosmic Night, the uncontainable and unknowable pure evil, that's just out there - that he spends so much of the film boxed in is his fascination and his threat, since by the time we know that he can out-think his captors any time he likes, we've already understood why it's terribly important that he not get out.

Demme shoots the Starling-Lecter scenes in a brilliantly simple way: he has Hopkins stare into the camera, and he has Foster look slightly to the side (there are particular moments where this changes for specific effect: Lecter looking at nothing in particular as a way of foregrounding the moments where he lets what's left of his humanity bubble up, for example). As the film moves on, Foster's gaze eventually shifts into direct address as well, leading to the justly iconic scene where she recounts her memory of lambs being led to slaughter. It initially puts us in Starling's position and critically not in Lecter's: he's as inveigling and as emotionally dangerous to us as to her, right up until we hit the point of realisation that we share with him a unique desire to understand what drives her, at which time we become her confessor and her therapist. Direct address in close-up is a marvelous powerful tool for the filmmaker, the most bold and potentially most ruinous way of turning that most quintessentially cinematic object, the human face, into a vehicle for communicating emotion and story; that this grubby crime thriller would have the depth of human insight to carry off some of the finest direct address in English-language cinema in its greatest and most important scene is the surest proof of just how perfectly everything here came together.




*If we broaden that out to "the first third of the year", it brings us up to a whopping 17, including one other winner - April, 1977's Annie Hall.