The Silence of the Lambs is based on a best-selling novel, its casting department hit two home runs with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, and it found a director whose career was on the upswing. The film had every reason to succeed, and it did. Still, few movies work on this level, and fewer yet are rewarded for their efforts.
The Silence of the Lambs is the best film of 1991, and it probably isn’t close. The Oscars have a checkered past when it comes to selecting a good winner (look no further than the previous year’s ceremony where Dances with Wolves took home the top honors), and more trouble yet when it comes to selecting a movie that clearly stands out from the pack (also look no further than the previous year’s ceremony where Goodfellas was snubbed).
Although The Silence of the Lambs is also considered the first horror movie to ever win Best Picture, it’s better classified as a thriller. Including The Silence of the Lambs, only three true thrillers (all adaptations of novels, interestingly enough) have ever won Best Picture (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men being the others). With that in mind, The Silence of the Lambs could be considered the first thriller to win the award in more than 50 years.
The movie’s plot centers around FBI-agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Foster). Starling is asked to interview serial killer (and noted cannibal) Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. It’s believed that interviewing Hannibal could lead the FBI to capture a serial-killer-at-large known as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). The movie quickly establishes a three-way cat-and-mouse game between Clarice, Hannibal, and Buffalo Bill, and that engine powers the film through its conclusion.
Hopkins famously won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, despite being on screen for less than 16 minutes by the most liberal calculations. Hopkins devours (sorry) every second of screen time, which mesmerizes from start to finish. Hopkins and Foster are good enough to carry the movie together, but the horror-inspired cinematography, suitably-bleak set design, and a thrilling script penned by playwright Ted Tally elevate the film to another plane. The combination of those elements, along with the excellent source material, set a uniquely ominous tone for a hallmark thriller.
The Silence of the Lambs was rightly recognized as the best movie of 1991. It stands as one of the best Best Picture winners ever, and a modern classic.