Back in February of 1991, this film was released to mass praise from audiences and critics alike. It struck a chord with audiences as a very intense thriller that borders on horror (much like 'Seven', which would come later, and owe a lot to this film). Meanwhile critics couldn't deny how good it was with its twists, turns, atmosphere and incredible acting.
It went on to receive 7 Oscar nominations, winning 5, including Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Lead Actress (Jodie Foster) and Adapted Screenplay - a clean sweep of the top 5 categories, which, at the time, had only gone to a couple of dramas in the past; 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' ('75) and 'It Happened One Night' ('38). This was unprecedented for a movie of this type, as most fans ultimately consider it a horror movie of sorts. So what gave such a twisted movie such praise?
The film opens up with FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Foster) as we see her tackling an obstacle course in a creepy forest, giving us a nice visual portrayal of her character without saying a damn thing. You can tell from the get-go that she's independent, tenacious, and on-guard, but knows she can hold her own. This and the fact that she doesn't spook easily are pretty much cemented when she is assigned to a particularly creepy project.
She is assigned to interview former psychologist and cannibalistic killer, Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) to try to get into the mind of an on-the-loose killer known as "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Levine). Bill has been going around, abducting young women, and cutting the skin off their bodies. Much like Leatherface of 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre', he is also based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein. Anyway, FBI Special Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) believes that Lecter will be able to divulge information about Bill that will help the FBI track him down and capture him.
The catch to these interviews is that Lecter often ends up playing mind games with Clarice, having her divulge some of her personal life information in exchange for information that may lead to Bill. This makes for some of the more intense moments of the film, and it's easy to see in both Hopkins and Fosters cases why the won those acting awards. Hopkins showed an incredibly dark but sophisticated side, pretty much forever turning Hopkins into Hannibal the same way Robert Downey Jr. is basically just Iron Man now by default.
Foster on the other hand gave horror/thriller fans another strong female protagonist, strong for her mind and determination more than anything else. Foster's character was somewhat refreshing in that sense. My humble opinion is that she's probably the best female protagonist since 'Alien' (but that's perfectly debatable). Even by today's standards, one can't really deny that she's well-established in the hall of fame for best female protagonists.
This is one of those movies that I would recommend to anyone who's a fan of horror, thrillers and intense murder mysteries, as this is a sort of crown jewel. Horror fans see it as being an immense leap forward, and Hannibal Lecter is widely considered one of the best villains out there, let alone horror villains. On the other hand, if you're a fan of crime thrillers, and looking for something a little more intense, this is a great watch. Even if you know all that happens without seeing it, you should still give it a look, because there's more than just good story and acting here.
The film was further nominated for Best Sound and Film Editing, and it really shows. But it could easily further qualify for categories like Original Score with its ominous overtones; Cinematography, as the overall atmosphere of this film is so genuinely dark and creepy; Production Design based on the asylum scenes alone. This really is a gem of a film overall, and it lends itself to multiple viewings based more on its entertainment value than the idea of looking for clues. If you haven't checked it out yet, give it a shot. Just be weary that some of the asylum scenes can be a little intense if you're sensitive.