The Movie Review That Made Me a Movie Reviewer

Me at 21. No, really.

Here’s something fun:

As many of you know, I wasn’t always a novelist — my very first job out of college was as a film critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper in central California. I had spent most of my senior year of college doing freelance music writing for the Chicago Sun Times and New City magazine, and during the second half of that year I sent my resume out to newspapers all over California (my-then home state), looking for a music critic gig. I was rejected everywhere, except for the Bee. There, the Features Editor, Diane Webster, called me on the phone and said to me, “We already have a music critic, but we’re looking for a movie critic. Do you think you could do that?” To which I said, “Yes. Yes, I could.”

But they need proof that I could, so that very night I went to the local theater and bought a ticket for whatever movie was about to start showing. That movie: The Silence of the Lambs, about which I knew next to nothing. When it was done, I walked back to my apartment and wrote the review which follows. After this review and a couple others (for the Oliver Stone-directed biopic The Doors, and the utterly forgettable Michael Keaton film One Good Cop), I got flown out for a face-to-face interview. And then after that I got the job.

I thought it might be interesting for you all to see what I wrote like, when I was twenty-one years old and desperately, desperately trying to get a job as a movie critic.

What do I think of the review now, after nearly a quarter of a century? I think it shows that editors are good things; it’s too long, for for the length the review should have been, and for newspapers (it’s over 1,000 words; in the actual gig I was lucky to get 600). I gives away too much of the plot and particulars. It reads like I was trying to ape Roger Ebert (mostly because I was, him being a very good writer, and also the film critic I read the most). Also, and I think obviously, I’m trying to show off.

But there are good points, too. I also think the review is fairly observant, has some good turns of phrase, and largely accurate about the strengths and weaknesses of the film. I wouldn’t write this review now, but I don’t disagree with what I wrote then. The good news for me was that all the review’s weaknesses were solvable by subtraction, rather than by addition — which is to say, fixable through editing rather than requiring additional training. Which was ideal for the daily newspaper grind.

In any event, here is me at twenty one, writing about The Silence of The Lambs. Enjoy.

The Silence of the Lambs. Starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Written by Ted Tally from the book by Thomas Harris. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Rated R.

The most horrifying creatures in the world don’t wear hockey masks or wield chainsaws. The most horrible creatures in the world are composed and cultured. They take the time to build a convincing front of civilized behavior. They’re the type of people you’d have over for dinner, without realizing they’re planning to make you the main course. The subtle monsters.

This is why the most chilling monster in “The Silence of the Lambs” is not the serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who has earned his nom de mort through his habit of skinning his female victims, but Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), an absolutely civilized and erudite psychiatrist incarcerated in a Baltimore institution for the criminally insane because of his unseemly taste for human flesh.

The first glimpse of him is enough to send a shock down the spinal column. Lecter stands at the end of a corridor of howling madmen, politely and contritely awaiting a visitor. He’s beaming a knowing smile that is not quite predatory.

Lecter’s visitor is newly-deputized FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who has been pulled out of her training by her boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). Crawford needs insight into the mind of Buffalo Bill, insight that Lecter, both a psychiatrist and a serial killer, is in a unique position to give. Crawford believes that the sight of Clarice might entice the uncooperative doctor to open his mouth. The last time Lecter saw a woman was eight years ago, and he opened his mouth then only long enough to gobble up her tongue.

But Lecter isn’t interested in Clarice’s body. He’s more interested in her soul, the only part of her that he can get at through his glass cage. He offers her a deal: He’ll dole out views into Buffalo Bill’s mind. In return, she’ll answer any question he asks. Starling, who is only slightly more ambitious than she is terrified, accepts, figuring she can hold her own against Lecter and puzzle out the Buffalo Bill murders from Lecter’s cryptic utterances. She’s half right.

“The Silence of the Lambs” revolves around the twisted symbiosis of its two main characters. Everything else, including the nominal objective of tracking down Buffalo Bill, takes a back seat to the electrifying dialogue between Lecter and Starling. Director Jonathan Demme courts disaster grandly; if either of his main actors failed at their challenge, his film would have collapsed like a house of cards. Fortunately, Hopkins and Foster are up to the challenge. When they are both on the screen (usually photographed by Tak Fujimoto in extreme closeup), the movie cracks along.

Jodie Foster, in particular, deserves special mention. Foster’s Starling is not nearly as flamboyant as Hopkins’ Lecter, but in many ways she is more impressive. There have been many believable psychopaths before Lecter. Starling, however, is the first action heroine in recent memory who a) isn’t required to put herself in tight clothing and b) doesn’t need a man to get her out of trouble. Starling may have been chosen for her task by Crawford for her sexuality, but that criterion is ignored by Lecter in favor of her overlooked mentality. It’s ironic that the only male Starling is supposed to entice is the only one who treats her like a fully-functional human being.

Foster’s grounded Starling gives Hopkins’ Lecter room to fly. Hopkins chews scenery with nearly as much enthusiasm as his character chews on a human liver (accompanied, he tells Starling, with “some fava beans and a nice Chianti”). Hopkins plays Lecter as the ultimate subtle monster, so polite, so engaging, and so utterly possessed of an unholy need to devour.

Lecter probably woudn’t consider himself a cannibal. It’s just that there are so very few human beings out there. Certainly not Jack Crawford, who Lecter guesses wants Clarice for his own. Certainly not Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), mother of Buffalo Bill’s latest victim, and the unwitting agent of Lecter’s grand escape. And most certainly not head psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), whose petty digs at Lecter include blasting evangelistic television at him twenty four hours a day. All these “people” would be lunch meat in under thirty seconds, if Lecter wasn’t tightly bound up at all times.

The only person in “Silence” who is totally safe from Lecter’s culinary idiosyncrasy is the only one who deals with him fairly: Starling, who is bound by agreement to be totally honest and open with him. Lecter feeds on that honesty like manna from heaven. After one particularly harrowing confessional scene, which explains the title of the movie, Lecter sits back, eyes closed, with a look of such grateful sensuality that it crawls the skin. Hopkins controls that crawl masterfully, jacking it up to chair-gripping tension for as long as he owns the screen.

The Starling-Lecter scenes are so powerful that they almost cover up the fact that the rest of the movie is only average, as suspense movies go. Buffalo Bill, the other murderer, is hardly the menace Lecter is. He can’t even keep his latest victim (played with admirable feistiness by Brooke Smith) from getting the upper hand on him. On the level of plot, the devices which allow Starling to track Buffalo Bill down aren’t very well explained; she manages to end up in his living room on the barest of clues.

Before we can argue the point too much, Starling is thrown into a final confrontation with Bill, who stalks the novice agent in the dark with a pair of night finder glasses. The scene is a beautifully-shot nail-biter, but the loose ends are never quite tied up. The suspense in this suspense film peters out, unfulfilled.

These shortcomings and short cuts keep “The Silence of the Lambs” from being an unqualified success. They take nothing away, however, from the very fine performances of Foster and Hopkins, and the unforgettable character of Hannibal Lecter, the subtlest, and best, movie monster in years. Novelist Thomas Harris hasn’t closed the book on this character. It’d be interesting to see where he goes.

24 thoughts on “The Movie Review That Made Me a Movie Reviewer

  1. “Starling, however, is the first action heroine in recent memory who a) isn’t required to put herself in tight clothing and b) doesn’t need a man to get her out of trouble … It’s ironic that the only male Starling is supposed to entice is the only one who treats her like a fully-functional human being.”

    From your lips to Hollywood’s ears. Fingers crossed.

  2. That’s a better discussion of the film today, when there’s no need to worry about giving away the whole plot (which you did very nicely!). It makes me want to watch the movie again. Maybe Friday night….

  3. You and I worked at the Fresno Bee at the same time, but I don’t believe we ever met. I was on the news copy desk from 1989 until 1994, but as I was on the night shift I did not interact with the entertainment folks all that much. I certainly remember Diane Webster. Strange that I became a fan of your novels but never knew we almost crossed paths. How long were you with the Bee? Did you actually move to Fresno?

  4. Excellent movie and excellent review. I’ve always been of the opinion that the best thrillers are psychological thrillers. People that are intelligent and appear to be “trustworthy” make the scariest villains!

  5. This is great! I think they did correctly in hiring you. I really enjoyed the way you wrote it; I’m always using lots of adjectives and scenery to enhance my writing so I appreciated reading this!

  6. Job well done, young Scalzi. I have to say that I agree with most of what your review says. I also can see what you mean that you ‘give away’ too much of the plot. But overall, it flows well. Ah, when we were 21.

    *looks back at stuff I wrote eleven years ago*

    *shudders*

  7. I think it was a good review. It’s always hard to balance between revealing too much and failing to bait the potential viewer.

    Reviews are personal reflections, but if I see a movie that may be interesting the reviews may help me to decide if I shall watch it.

    What I don’t like is reviewers that complains about movies in a certain universe like “Star Trek” being Canon or Non-Canon, it just means that they overanalyzed it and didn’t look for the current message and entertainment value. If you read the Bible from end to end you will also find contradictions. Imagine a review of the Bible by someone that has never heard of it before or seen anything at all from it.

  8. Peter Melton:

    I was at the Bee from September ’91 through February ’96, and yep, I lived in Fresno. I sat in the Entertainment/Features room (which as you may recall at the time was sequestered away from the rest of the newsroom). I had a lovely time in town.

  9. I read “The Silence of the Lambs” I none night the first day I got it. Couldn’t sleep for 24 hours! I really enjoy psychological thrillers, and this was one of the best. The film captured the essence of the book well, but as your review pointed out it was Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster who made this film for me. Excellent review! Thanks for the peek back in time.

  10. Anybody looking to buy a house should look at two things: the FEMA flood map for their vicinity ( https://msc.fema.gov/portal ) and a topographic map (a map showing how high and low things are; you can access that through Google Earth or the USGS (or the Ordnance Survey in the UK)) to see the general drainage patterns around the neighborhood. And always assume the FEMA map isn’t quite paranoid enough.

  11. A bit off-topic, but I very much enjoy how the current page layout makes it look like your younger self is giving your present self the side-eye.

  12. …And I cleverly posted my advice on the movie reviewing thread instead of the flooding thread. I think I need a nap. Sorry, all.

  13. I like your review – and yes, there were a few bits here and there that remind you Jonathan Demme started out working for Roger Corman (the smash-cut from Crawford, with awful foreknowledge and apparent clairvoyance, murmuring “Clarice….” to Starling standing at Buffalo Bill’s door, unaware at this point he’s their quarry, being a big one!).

    To be fair, some of those loose ends you refer to in your review are in the book itself, making the point that capturing a serial killer is as much luck as skill – or as an acting teacher of mine once said, “Having the skill to capitalize on your luck when it happens.” Will Graham captures Lecter in Red Dragon in the same way – he sees a lithograph of a classic drawing called “Wound Man” in Lecter’s study, and realizes all the injuries on the bodies they’ve been looking at are from the drawing, and from there pieces together on the fly that Lecter must be their killer! If Lecter hadn’t been so eager to achieve closure with Will by eating him, but had chosen to bluff his way through somehow and then later vanished, he probably wouldn’t have been incarcerated in either Red Dragon or at the start of Silence of the Lambs….

  14. “Everything else, including the nominal objective of tracking down Buffalo Bill, takes a back seat to the electrifying dialogue between Lecter and Starling.”

    You aren’t kidding. I barely remember anything about Buffalo Bill at all, yet can easily picture (and hear) Lecter and Starling’s conversations.

  15. Well, now I know what that movie is about. I’m not much of a movie person and the occasional references I saw to it were already squicky enough that I didn’t want to try to find out more directly. So I thank you for filling in some of these cultural literacy gaps for me. I’m going to go throw up now.

    (Not really. But *shudder.*)

  16. “”Lecter probably woudn’t consider himself a cannibal. It’s just that there are so very few human beings out there.””

    That is very insightful. And it scares a little me that I so get that.

  17. What else is weird is that I have ‘Red Dragon’ in the to-watch pile. Maybe I should wait until my megalomania spell passes…

  18. I worked on The Whitworthian, an award winning student paper the semester I worked on it, as their politics/student government beat reporter my freshman year. I wanted the credit and had done some relevant work in high school. I tested my editor’s patience with late, badly written articles.

    On one notable occasion – I had been saving my best friend from being raped or god knows what else by a man she was taking advantage of for alcohol. He got her wasted in under 10 minutes when I realised she’d lied to him about her age – at which point I enlightened him and he ordered my friend, who could no longer speak or walk correctly, out of his house. Thankfully my boyfriend at the time was there with me and we carried her to the car. Now I would take her to the hospital in fear of alcohol poisoning; that night I drove around the city for oh, 6 hours, trying to comfort my friend who was 3 months past a suicide attempt over a miscarriage and badly needed to talk about it. I’m still not sure why I didn’t just park the car and hold her in the back seat, but the driving seemed to help.

    The next morning I picked her up from her boyfriend’s house and drove her to her car, which made me late for my actual paying job. I did my edits, due at 3 pm Saturdays, on a very important piece I’d cowritten, on my 15 minute break at my county library job.

    So, I know whereof I speak, and you would have been a valued movie reviewer at any paper. I’m sure the Bee loved you :)

  19. I would not be able to tell that was a 21-year-old. It was amazingly well written and polished.

Comments are closed.