From the February 1, 1991 Chicago Reader. I subsequently decided that the explanation for this movie’s highly profitable sickness was the then-current and no less “profitable” first gulf war and its own indiscriminate slaughter. — J.R.
An accomplished, effective, grisly, and exceptionally sick slasher film (1991) that I can’t with any conscience recommend, because the purposes to which it places its considerable ingenuity are ultimately rather foul. Like Thomas Harris’s novel, which screenwriter Ted Tally adapts here, Jonathan Demme’s film proposes that the psychotic serial killer is the essential religious figure of our time: saint, guru, seer, and soothsayer rolled into one. In fact, this characterization applies literally to only one of the two serial killers here, a psychiatrist (Anthony Hopkins) who cannibalizes his victims and is now held in maximum security. The heroine (Jodie Foster), an FBI trainee, appeals to him for insight in tracking down another mad killer (Ted Levine), who flays his victims (and is a transvestite to boot, allowing Demme to cash in on the homophobia market). In the course of parceling out his wisdom, the psychiatrist also analyzes the trainee, becoming an even more commanding father figure to her than the boss (Scott Glenn) who sends her on this mission. The radical premise that our society implicitly worships as well as fears serial killers underlies the queasy impact of this gory thriller without becoming its overriding thesis, and while Demme has said that this story takes some really good pokes at patriarchy, this is mainly wishful thinking. The film, like its flesh-eating psycho, is more bent on exploiting its insights than on teaching us anything. Like all other slasher movies from Psycho on, this one works insofar as it plays on the desire to see victims, preferably women, get torn to pieces. Not even the best performances and direction — and this movie has talent to spare — can justify the putridity of the enterprise. For creepy, sicko kicks, I’d rather watch the evening news. 118 min. (JR)