Saturday, January 26

Adventures in Jodie Fostering, Part 2: The Silence of the Lambs

I have a confession to make: I have never watched the full movie before. I had been too young to see it in the theaters. I've seen bits and pieces on television, but could never stay with it long enough because Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter scared the bejeezus out of me. 

Then there's the part that's been shown over and over in film and writing classes since then: Clarice Starling pacing outside Hannibal Lecter's cell, unease written all over her, the prisoner stands calmly. It's a role reversal that leads us to the real reason why Agent Starling is intent on capturing Buffalo Bill. It's more than proving herself worthy and better than the men in her world or saving the senator's daughter. All Clarice wants is a good night's sleep. For the lambs to stop crying. 

When I finished the movie, aside from being scared sh*tless, my first thought was: Godammit, I should have watched this sooner. 

Hannibal Lecter is a master at perceiving characters. Starling has not even graduated yet from the FBI training camp, but she's at the top of her class and is given this special assignment to talk to Lecter. She's been warned never to tell him anything personal. Yet all it takes is a single eye to toe look ("Your good bag and cheap shoes."), a couple of seemingly innocent questions (Undergrad at the University of Virginia) and he has Starling's number. 

The movie is more than two decades old, came out three years before The X-Files and Dana Scully, at least 6 years before David Fincher's Se7en and a good ten years before CSI numbed us to the specifics of forensic investigations. (Odds are ten to one that Gil Grissom's insect geekiness owes a lot to the insect geeks in this movie. Anyway...) It's not really the grizzly details, the blood and gore and even the microscopic DNA whatever that matters. It's how the mind works, the wheels turning and memories unlocking. And yet, The Silence of the Lambs is still arguably better at providing psychological insight as to why serial killers/criminals do the things that they do. 

The most interesting parts of The Silence of the Lambs isn't the gore, it's the trust slowly building between Lecter and Starling, the quid pro quo, and that slow dread of waiting whether Lecter, who has developed a mild obsession for his student, would hunt her down and have a new friend over for dinner. And when Starling descends into that basement and the lights go out, you think back to that early scene during FBI bootcamp, that fake raid that ends with Starling with a gun on her head. It's not just a blind spot, it's a goddamn blackout, and dammit if Buffalo Bill gets to her first. 

But what I like the most about Jodie Foster's Agent Starling is that she gets the right mix of vulnerability and courage. She *is* better than everyone in class. And as Amy Taubin points out in her essay in the Criterion Collection: "Clarice's mission is not to marry the prince but to rescue the maiden." Whether by smarts ("Your anagrams are showing.") or with the aid of a gun, Agent Starling gets things done. 

You breathe a small sigh of relief when it's over. And yet it's not really over. Lecter is still out there, having dinner with an old friend and phones his new one during FBI graduation. Lecter has one question: Have the lambs stopped crying? Perhaps the more apt question is this: Will it ever stop? 

The Silence of the Lambs has quite the afterlife: There are many attempts to clone the movie's success and parlay it into television. (The movies are another matter.) There is a spinoff under development, a crime procedure that follows Starling after she graduates from the FBI academy. There's also a prequel that follows Lecter in his early days as a psychiatrist who occasionally eats his patients and the police. Or as the AV Club jokes, to complete this cottage industry mindset, all we need is a show that comes from Buffalo Bill's dog's point of view. 

Tuesday, January 22

Adventures in Jodie Fostering: Panic Room

I have been thinking a lot about Panic Room and Zodiac, so this has more to do with David Fincher, and less to do with Jodie Foster. Although I might admit that the "I am single" speech at the Golden Globes gave the viewing that extra push. 

I had first seen Panic Room in a theater it in its first run in 2002, and I'm glad to say that it does hold up to scrutiny and remains terribly scary even when watching on a smaller screen. Perhaps the more contained dimension helps in cramping up the space even more than the 6x14 feet of the titular safe room. 

All we need to know happens in the first few minutes: a recently divorced mother checks out new dwellings with her young daughter. On their first night, three burglars break in looking for the millions allegedly stashed in the safe room. The contained location becomes the crucible for all the action. Everything happens in one night, in that house, and mostly inside and the immediate environs of the panic room. 

What's interesting to watch in Panic Room is how David Fincher and the script by David Koepp were able to negotiate the balances of power between the intruders and the homeowners, managing it mostly by who is inside or outside that three feet thick steel door, and then having it escalate to matters of life and death. 

I also love it that the entire movie is summed up in a couple of exchanges. The first one was when Meg realized there were other people in the house and makes a run for her daughter's room. "What's happening?" The barely awake Sarah asks while they race to the panic room. "Pinball, in a house," Meg says. Which is true. A core of five (or six, or eight) people bouncing around the house, trying to force each other to open or slam doors. 

Then there's conversation waged over the security camera monitors. Jared Leto's Junior holds up a series of handwritten signs to tell Meg what their intentions are: "What we want is in that room." Junior figures out that women crave security, so he adds: "We will let you go." Even young Sarah knows this was a total lie, so she tells her mother to tell the invaders off. "We're not coming out. We're not letting you in." It's still not tough enough for Sarah so she tells Meg, "Say 'fuck'." Meg swears, but in the right way, so she has to repeat it for emphasis. "Get the fuck out of my house." That is the entire movie in a nutshell: Shit is going to go down if they don't do as she says. 

Also interesting for me this time around is the relationship between Jodie Foster's divorcee mother and daughter, a really young Kristen Stewart, several lifetimes before she became Bella Swan or became known as KStew. Hell, the first time around, I didn't even know Kristen Stewart was the kid in the picture. Her Sarah is pretty much a tomboy, with her androgynous haircut and even advising her mother to swear to let the burglars know she means business. Yet, Sarah is pretty much the vulnerable child, spurring her mother to abandon the safety of the panic room so she could get her child's medication.  

Then I read elsewhere that Nicole Kidman was originally cast to play the mother, and Stewart was cast to play off her: the daughter as antithesis to the helpless, glamourous mother. But Kidman had a knee injury from Moulin Rouge and had to leave. When Foster came on board, the role of Meg was rewritten to make her tougher, and more similar to her daughter. What even complicated the shoot more was that Foster found out she was pregnant five weeks into the shooting. But I have to say there is sheer joy in watching mother and daughter interact. 

Although some people might say that the story is pretty thin, I think it just can't get any tighter than that. I would even venture to say that Panic Room is way better than similar movies during its time (Phonebooth with Colin Farrell comes to mind) or even later--I'm thinking of Liam Neeson's Taken movies, but that "Harm my family and I swear to hell you'll pay for it" revenge theme comparison might be better suited to later Jodie Foster movies like Flightplan and The Brave One, which I totally intend to watch because it promises to be sheer good fun. I have a feeling that Jodie Foster makes for a better action star than Tom Cruise or even Angelina Jolie. We'll see.