This film is the thriller that all thrillers since have tried to be. The serial killer sub-genre has never been better. Anthony Hopkins was an established actor before this film, but his performance as the demented Dr. Hannibal Lecter made him a mega-star. I've seen this film dozens of times and with each new viewing I'm still thrilled and on the edge of my seat.
The story follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, THE ACCUSED) sent by special agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn, THE RIGHT STUFF) to interview the serial killer Hannibal the cannibal. Her assignment is to elicit the notorious killer's insight into the newest at-large killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine, HEAT). This begins the film's battle of wills. Lecter is a genius and Clarice gains his sympathy because she does not insult his intelligence. He is a crafty manipulator and pulls out past traumas from her mind like they're cotton candy. Will he get into her head before she can get into his?
Two things in particular make this film a classic. First and foremost are the well-developed main characters. In an Oscar-winning performance, Foster is understated as Clarice, a nervous rookie who desperately wants to erase the pain of her past and establish herself in a man's profession. Foster is convincing as a country girl trying to put her poor background behind her. We really come to care about her.
Hopkins, whom also won an Oscar, creates a legendary villain. He's a creepy murderer who we always feel nervous about and drawn to at the same time. Too often Hopkins's performance outshines Foster, but without Clarice, Hannibal wouldn't be as good and visa versa. Like the audience, Clarice too is drawn to Hannibal's suave nature, dry wit and keen insight. If you've seen the film before, I recommend watching it again and paying close attention to Clarice's story, you may end up seeing a totally different film.
The second key factor to the film's brilliance is the exceptionally well-crafted suspense scenes. Hannibal's escape scene is constructed marvelously, ending with an unexpected demented twist. Watch the scene closely and one will discover the many touches that highlight Hannibal's devious cunning. The scene that crosscuts the FBI arriving at the house in Ohio and Buffalo Bill in his basement as the doorbell rings is a stroke of genius. It's tense and suspenseful and the pay-off only heightens the tension of the final scene when Clarice confronts the film's villain. Her final chase through the killer's labyrinthine basement is a true nail-bitter and once the murderer turns off the lights, Clarice is literally left in the dark. Foster acting at that moment is frighteningly realistic.
Additionally, the film is loaded with quotable lines, which are too numerous to mention here. But a few have entered the pop culture lexicon. "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti." "It places the lotion in the basket." And one of the greatest closing lines of all time — "I'm having an old friend for dinner." Ted Tally's Oscar-winning adaptation of Thomas Harris's novel is an inspired mix of great dialogue, action and character, which all play in tandem, making the entire story richer.
From Jonathan Demme's perfect direction to the film's inventive editing to Tally's perfect script, the film is a landmark in film history and a bona-fide artistic thrill ride.