Silence of the Lambs Blu-ray ReviewMarch 12, 2009
Eighteen years after release, Silence of the Lambs (1991) remains a tense enthralling work of art that is successful on both sides of the audience/critic gap and is only the third movie so far in history to take home all top five Oscars (actor, actress, director, picture and screenplay) following It Happened One Night (1939) and One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (1975). It is one of those all too rare confluence of acting, direction, script, cinematography, musical score and pretty much any other cinematic element you can name where the already excellent parts synergize into an almost perfect whole. Cementing its popularity, main characters Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) invariably land in the upper echelon of polls for best movie protagonist and villain respectfully.
I will not bother rehashing the plot, as it is well enough known and dissected in countless reviews. Based on Thomas Harris' best selling novel of the same name, Silence mixes the genres of police/crime procedural, psychological thriller and horror in such subtle and intricate ways that to try to separate the elements that lend to any particular thread always leads back to the others. The film has been imitated in piecemeal for its dark themes and combining genres where it laid the groundwork for much that was to follow both for movie and television in the last two decades but has rarely been equaled as a cohesive product.
Its success solidified the reputations for several of its main players. Director Jonathan Demme was best known prior for comedic/crime themed Married to the Mob and Something Wild which only vaguely alluded to the intensity he would bring to this adaptation. Jodie Foster was arguably most popular for her turn as preteen prostitute Iris in Scorsese's Taxi Driver and coming off her recent Oscar win for The Accused. As stated in the extras, Clarice "finally broke Jodie out of her victim roles." Anthony Hopkins was not the first actor to play Lecter as that honor belongs to Brian Cox five years earlier in Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986). However he is easily the actor most favorably associated with the iconic screen villain and went on to reprise the role twice more in equally mediocre (comparable to Silence) sequel/prequels Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001) and Brett Ratner's Red Dragon (2002).
It is a testament to how well Silence of the Lambs has stood the test of time that I had to seriously nitpick to find anything to criticize. The only thing that contextually dates the film (and I will admit this is a weak criticism) is the focus on Clarice as a woman in a man's world. This is both from the condition of her as a fledgling agent surrounded by male counterparts and dealing with male antagonists (though Buffalo Bill is arguable in that context). In the last two decades there have been many prominent female protagonists that slightly lessen the relevance of Clarice's situation. That quibble aside, having seen Silence many times over the years, I found myself holding my breath in suspense as the movie played out for my latest viewing even though I knew exactly how it would end. I do not have much greater compliment to give than that.
Silence arrives on Blu-ray Disc framed at its theatrically exhibited 1.85:1 ratio with a 1080p presentation that is somewhat controversial as this title was originally slated for release in April 2007. While I do not know the reason for the delay (and it appears to be the case for several other catalog titles recently surfacing on Blu-ray from the studio), MGM did not go to any extra effort in the intervening months and provide the previously prepared MPEG-2 encoded transfer. Instead they could have utilized the VC-1 or AVC codecs that have since become standard being shown to have a more efficient compression ratio while minimizing digital artifacts. This should not immediately make you suspicious as many early Blu-rays had fairly impressive results utilizing MPEG-2 encodes at high enough bitrates.
That leads to the fact that not just the transfer but virtually the whole Blu-ray package is what was prepared two years ago including an inefficiently produced extra that robs the main feature of space on the disc (more on that later). Before you dismiss this transfer on principal, I will say it is the best that I have ever seen the film look on home video. Compared to the previous standard-def releases, it is an improvement in clarity, detail, color, etc. Beneficially there is no print damage and the subdued color palette is solidly reproduced.
Yet is it the best the film could look in 1080p resolution? The answer is a definitive "No" and not necessarily because of the encoding used though there is some artifacting and noise that may have been reduced or eliminated. It is rather due to the intrusive use of Digital Noise Reduction filtering to reduce grain. I kept trying to convince myself that the picture, while fairly clear, came off too smooth due to the age of the negative or the shooting style. Nevertheless, the image is lacking in basic grain structure for being shot on 35mm, and too many close-ups are deficient in fine object detail. While there are obvious gains from Blu-ray's increased resolution and many will not notice the deficits of DNR, seeing how many other catalog titles have been gloriously preserved in HD (grain and all) makes you realize a classic of this stature deserves better treatment than this.
For audio we get a lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio1 track that seems to duplicate the composition of the Dolby Digital 5.1 on the previous DVD editions. I wish the original stereo mix had been included to satisfy purists and for comparison, but the audio does not feel artificial or forced like many surround tracks reconstituted from mono or stereo sources. The rears are only used sporadically for ambient effect, and I do not think my sub ever kicked in so this really functions as a 3.0 mix to my ears.
Dialog is consistently clear and never gets buried under Howard Shore's intensely creepy score or the environmental effects. While I wish the soundtrack could have been more dynamic and enveloping with better directionality and a larger scoundscape (I have been spoiled by modern soundtracks), this is most likely the best that can be done with the original sound elements, and I would rather not have a more aggressive mix fabricated where it cannot be supported. The movie is so absorbing that you likely will notice little deficit in the audio that does its job quite well.
Additional audio is provided as Dolby Digital Spanish and French 5.1 and Thai 2.0. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), Chinese , Korean, Spanish and Thai.
The majority of the extras from MGM's previous DVD editions are included with a few new features. Sadly the excellent commentary from the long out of print Criterion DVD is still absent.
Breaking the Silence – A new feature that replays the movie in standard-def with the hard-coded equivalent of a PiP (picture in picture) commentary in the lower right of the screen and some random facts that pop up throughout on the left side. While there is much informative input from Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn, Anthony Hopkins and screenwriter Ted Tally, this really should have been done with the more recent BonusView/Profile 1.1 functionality allowing for dual decoding of the inputs. This would have not forced the studio to duplicate the movie in DVD quality taking up space that could have been allocated to the bitrate of the main feature and not forced us to have to sit through the movie in standard-def to enjoy this.
Understanding the Madness (19:35, HD) – A new featurette with interviews from members of the Academy Group Inc, a forensic behavioral science firm. They comment on the art of profiling and how the film mimics real life techniques to get in the mind of a serial killer. Somewhat short but very interesting.
Inside the Labyrinth (1:06) – An excellent documentary originally on the 2001 DVD with input from the main actors, screenwriter, film critics, producer, composer and set designer. This covers all aspects of making the movie and is a must watch for fans.
Silence of the Lambs: Page to Screen (41:17) – A Bravo network production hosted by Peter Gallagher that chronicles the transformation of Harris' novel to the big screen. A good background on the author is presented with input from book editor, producer and critics.
Scoring the Silence (16:00) – Talk with composer Howard Shore (David Chronenberg films, Lord of the Rings) about creating the haunting musical score. The short runtime includes a number of clips to contextualize his musical contributions.
Deleted Scenes (20:29) – 22 scenes that are vaguely interesting to watch but do not add much depth and are understandable why they were dropped. Video quality is fairly poor but still watchable.
1991 Featurette (8:07) – This is basically a promo piece with a few decent interview snippets with the main cast.
Phone Message (:34) – Joke answering message from Lecter.
TV Spots (5:55) – 11 television spots that are fairly redundant but may be enjoyed by some for historical reference.
Outtakes (1:46) – Surprisingly funny outtake reel for such a dark movie. I would have really enjoyed more of this.
Teaser Trailer (1:05) – The teaser trailer with poor video quality.
Theatrical Trailer (1:49, HD) – The theatrical trailer is ironically encoded in AVC with mixed video quality. It does however show grain and detail that are absent from the movie's transfer lending towards the evidence of unnecessary DNR use.
Silence of the Lambs may not be the best film ever but stands out as a classic and influential thriller that has held up over almost two decades with several iconic characters and precise tension inducing direction. My recent viewing was as enjoyable as first seeing it 18 years ago.
Unfortunately I am disappointed with MGM's decision to not mint a new transfer with the latest encoding capabilities, too much heavy handed use of DNR and not taking advantage of the BonusView functionality for the PiP feature. Those not susceptible to DNR may not find as much to complain about, and as previously stated, this is currently the best looking incarnation of the film on home video so fans will want to get a copy. I really would like to see a double-dip of this title on Blu-ray to maximize its quality but considering the two year delay to get this version, I would not expect it any time soon.
- Robert Searle
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The Silence of the Lambs
MGM - Fox
March 03, 2009
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio