Picks and Pans Review: The Silence of the Lambs

updated 02/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster

Here's the perfect Valentine's Day date movie. First, it's scary enough to put your sweetie into cuddling, or at least cowering, mode. Second, it lets men show what Mr. Sensitives they are by pointing out that the film is as much about sexist psychological abuse of women as it is about serial killings. Women, meanwhile, can enjoy how well Foster handles all the men in the movie.

Foster plays an FBI trainee called into a case by bureau behavioral specialist Scott (The Hunt for Red October) Glenn. He thinks her lack of experience might disarm the defense mechanisms of an incarcerated murderer whose advice he needs about a series of abduction murders of young women.

The jailed criminal is Hopkins, playing Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, a psychiatrist who is the embodiment of every psychotherapy patient's worst fears: He's brilliant, intuitive and seductive, and if he decides you're not worthy, he'll kill and eat you, not necessarily in that order. (Lecter was also a character in 1986's less impressive Manhunter, taken, like this film, from a novel by Thomas Harris.)

The confrontations between Foster and Hopkins—facing her from an ultrasecure cell—are models of chilling intensity. Foster, struggling not to be intimidated, and Hopkins, quickly focusing on her biggest insecurities, extract all the steely terror from Ted (White Palace) Tally's trim script. And director Jonathan (Married to the Mob) Demme dwells on close-ups of the two actors' faces, catching every twitch—or, in Hopkins's case, the absence of twitches.

Among the ironies swirling under the film's surface is that Hopkins treats Foster with respect. Otherwise, she's hit on or patronized by almost every man she meets, from Hopkins's prison mates to guys she passes in the airport, to cops she works with, to Glenn. (The sense of sexist persecution is all the more pointed coming in a male-dominated movie.)

The overt plot revolves around butterfly collector-tailor-murderer Ted (Love at Large) Levine, who's mad because he has been rejected for a transsexual operation.

Levine, perhaps inevitably, pales by comparison with Hopkins, and his involvement in the plot is one of the film's aspects that doesn't bear much scrutiny. (He lives, for instance, in an average suburban house, but its basement is cavernous and conveniently includes a 20-foot deep, captive-storing well.) It seems unlikely, too, that the FBI would throw an inexperienced woman like Foster into a case like this, and Lecter doesn't wash either—chewing people to death hardly seems efficient, for example.

Most damaging, Anthony (Teachers) Heald, as the head shrink at the institution where Hopkins is kept, overacts wildly, awkwardly lampooning the behavior of a doctor who wants to use his special patient as a career springboard. His every appearance shatters the film's ominous mood.

Bad dreams needn't be plausible to be disturbing, though, and minute by minute this film ranks with the most upsetting of them. It will make men think maybe some of those feminist complaints are justified. As for the women—well, you knew we were like this all along, didn't you? (R)

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