FILMS

The evil that men do

Terror stalks two female characters

Brian D. Johnson February 18 1991
FILMS

The evil that men do

Terror stalks two female characters

Brian D. Johnson February 18 1991

The evil that men do

FILMS

Terror stalks two female characters

Jodie Foster became a star at the age of 13 by playing a gum-snapping prostitute who befriends a psychotic in the 1976 classic Taxi Driver. Julia Roberts became a star at the age of 22 by playing a gum-snapping prostitute who falls in love with a tycoon in the 1990 hit Pretty Woman. But the two actors are a study in contrasts. Foster, with sharp, fox-like features, projects the toughened intelligence of a survivor. Roberts, widemouthed and wide-eyed, is a picture of Bambi innocence. Now, they are both starring in new thrillers based on novels about women terrorized by lunatic men. The Silence of the Lambs is a clever, creepy and extremely compelling drama in which Foster plays an FBI agent tracking a serial killer. Sleeping with the Enemy, meanwhile, is a laughably trite melodrama that squanders a brave performance by Roberts as a battered wife.

The Silence of the Lambs explores the pathology of evil. Adapted from the best-selling 1988 novel by American author Thomas Harris, the movie preys, with peculiar cunning, on the common fascination with uncommon forms of depravity. Superbly crafted, it marks a radical departure for U.S. film-maker Jonathan Demme, who is best known for directing women in candy-colored comedies with shrewd rock sound tracks—Something Wild (1986), star-

ring &LTMelanie Griffith as a kinky seductress who waylays a clean-cut businessman, and Married to the Mob (1988), a Mafia parody featuring Michelle Pfeiffer as a gangster’s wife. In The Silence of the Lambs, Demme trains his discerning eye on much darker material. The result is the kind of movie that nightmares are made of.

A Hollywood veteran at 28, Foster again shows the emotional depth that won her a best actress Oscar for her performance as a rape victim in The Accused (1988). In Silence of the Lambs, she plays Clarice, an ambitious FBI recruit chosen to help track down a serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine).

Clarice’s mentor, special agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), assigns her to interview an imprisoned sociopath named Dr. Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lector (Anthony Hopkins), a psychiatrist who may hold the secret to the serial killer’s psychology—and his identity.

Lector is “a monster, a pure psychopath,” explains Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), the smarmy asylum director who basks in the reflected glory of his prize inmate. “It’s so rare to capture one alive.”

Buffalo Bill and Dr. Lector are no ordinary criminals. Buffalo Bill is famous for killing women, skinning them and leaving the cocoon of an exotic moth in their mouths. Lector made his name by eating the flesh of his victims raw. All of that may sound a little hard to swallow. But powerful performances geared to Demme’s taut direction make the material grimly credible.

At the heart of the drama is the gothic relationship bez tween Clarice and Lector. In

0 a brilliant performance, Britz ish actor Anthony Hopkins “ portrays the twisted psychiatrist with spooky calm—as a deceptively civilized predator possessed of diabolical intelligence and a chilling sense of humor. Lector consents to help Clarice only if she reveals something of herself to him—personal secrets. The conversations take place through the heavy glass of his high-security cell, but that barrier cannot protect her from his mind.

Because of its horrifying subject matter, The Silence of the Lambs c ould be highly controversial. But the movie’s graphic images of brutality never seem gratuitous or exploitative. To Demme’s credit, he avoids directly portraying acts of violence against women. Instead, he shows glimpses of the gruesome results, clinically and without sensationalism. What is truly horrifying, what haunts the imagination long after the film is over, is psychological, not physical—the chilling way that Lector talks, the seductive evil of his penetrating gaze.

The Silence of the Lambs fosters a disturbing sense of complicity. It is a movie with two villains who represent quite different incarnations of evil. Buffalo Bill, a grotesque enigma, has absolutely no redeeming virtues. But Lector is strangely sympathetic, a symbol of muzzled rage. And because he holds the secret M to finding Bill, he insinuates

1 himself into Clarice’s heroz ism. There is even a macabre justice to his choice of vic£ tims, who tend to be bureau5 crats and authority figures—

“The census taker once tried to test me,” he recalls. “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

Lector’s consummate wit and style become

synonymous with the director’s. Demme relieves moments of unbearable tension with wicked gallows humor. But on the whole, he plays it surprisingly straight. Unlike American director David Lynch—who has explored surreal violence in TV’s Twin Peaks and in last year’s movie Wild at Heart—Demme resists the impulse to be recklessly campy about wanton homicide.

Although The Silence of the Lambs is of dubious moral value—a triumph of technique rather than ideas—it is not offensive. And as a pure thriller, it ranks with the classics. Demme directs the camera with exquisite control. Despite jarring' lapses in the narrative as it shifts focus from one villain to the other, the suspense never lets up. With nervous eyes and a clipped Virginia twang, Foster generates a palpable sense of fear, a tension that builds to a terrifying climax, complete with an ingenious twist and a black-humored epilogue.

In Sleeping with the Enemy, Roberts is not so fortunate. Her thriller, like Foster’s, ends with the heroine trapped in a house with a man who is trying to kill her. But the similarity ends there. It portrays evil as a cliché. It has a stupid villain, a hapless heroine and a hopeless script. Roberts plays Laura, a devoted housewife who lives with a successful businessman named Martin (Patrick Bergin) in a lavish Cape Cod beach house. They appear to have the ideal life. As it turns out, however, he subjects her to violent abuse at the slightest provocation. Martin insists on having the towels in the bathroom lined up perfectly. The cans in the kitchen cupboard must be immaculately stacked. His meals must be arranged precisely as he wants them on the plate. When Laura slips up, he brutally beats her. And he has told her that if she ever leaves him, he will track her down and kill her.

Laura escapes by faking her own death. She changes her name and moves to a sweet little town in Iowa, close to the nursing home where her mother lives. She seems to have covered all the angles—Martin is under the impression that her mother died several years earlier. Tentatively, Laura creates a new life for herself. She strikes up a romance with the man next door, a sensitive drama teacher (Kevin Anderson), and their courtship unfolds as a parade of silly movie moments.

Of course, the evil Martin shows up to spoil their fun. And director Joseph Ruben signals his lurking presence with all the familiar camera tricks. In the predictable climax, the sound track cues one false alarm after another. The cynicism behind Ruben’s direction is all too transparent. Bergin’s antic behavior as the villain is more ludicrous than scary. And although Roberts delivers a solid, emotionally sincere performance, she is trapped in a no-win situation. Sleeping with the Enemy is not just an unconvincing thriller—it trivializes the issue of wife battering. And Roberts evokes sympathy, not just for playing the victim of an unforgivably bad husband, but for becoming the victim of an unforgivably bad movie.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON