Directed by Jonathan Demme. Screenplay by Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Produced by Ronald M. Bozman, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt. Music by Howard Shore. Photographed by Tak Fujimoto. Edited by Craig McKay. Production designed by Kristi Zea. Starring Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Anthony Heald, Kasi Lemmons, Diane Baker, Frankie Faison, Dan Butler, Lawrence T. Wrentz.
Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (based on Thomas Harris’ truly frightening book) is maybe the oddest film ever to win a Best Picture Academy Award. Here is a movie about dark shadows, gross details and arcane rituals, graphic perversions and psychotic evil. And yet it won five Oscars, two BAFTAs, a DGA award, a Golden Globe, critical acclaim and “classic” status. In an era of homogenous Hollywood product, it gives one hope to think of a time when a film this strange not only was made, it flourished. But it is not just Silence’s peculiarity that gives it strength. It is the high quality of its presentation. Not just the acting (although it is brilliant), and not just the filmmaking (though it is expert), but the whole package together, and how the individual parts interact. It is a special film like Silence that has my favorite attribute to watch for in a motion picture, which is poise. First it knows what it wants to do, then it knows what it’s doing, and then it knows what it did, and all throughout it operates with grace and precision.
One might think it is difficult to obtain a fresh perspective on Silence (one free of its award baggage), but in a certain respect it is not so difficult, because it dovetails with the actual film, which is all about contrasting perspectives. Not just the obviously different mindsets between a sane woman and crazed serial killers, but also about how Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) enters an underworld far removed from the controlled confines of the FBI Academy, one that is ruled by murderers. And also in how Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), though he is seen as a monster by his captors, is well-spoken, refined and insightful, even when discussing his evil past with absolutely no remorse. And also in the way Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), the privileged daughter of a senator, is ensnared through her own kindness by the sadist Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), and goes from a cushy apartment to being half-naked and stranded at the bottom of an old well. It even plays with our own perspective as audience members, as when sly editing suggests that the FBI is seconds away from apprehending Buffalo Bill, when in actuality they are not, and the far-away Clarice is instead the one in immediate danger.
Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography reflects this strategy, adopting specific vantage points at any given time, frequently implicating the viewer in the film’s action (and it frames said action with an autumnal palette—the time of year when living things die). Sometimes the camera adopts Clarice point-of-view, where a subject will talk to her by staring directly at camera, or lengthy pans where she, offscreen, drinks in her surroundings. Other times, we are over her shoulder, behind her, catching little details that she may be aware of, even though she does not specifically see them. Awkward glances, looks, and leers are constantly thrown towards Clarice Starling, and the photography notes and dismisses them, as if sharing a guilty secret with the audience. Still other times, Silence‘s visual technique makes literal the film’s buried themes of subjugated women, such as when Clarice enters an elevator full of tall, intimidating, uniformed men, or when Catherine begs for mercy from her descended prison, and Buffalo Bill towers over her. And it gives us the first visual clue for Clarice (and us) to perhaps admire the menacing Hannibal Lecter: notice how in their first meeting, he stands while she sits, and yet as the two actors are intercut, Lecter’s gaze is always straight ahead. He never looks down on Clarice Starling, which is more than can be said for any other man in the film.
Silence is tactful with the way it navigates tricky themes of sexism without being exploitative. Part of the way the film operates is to scatter little clues that seem invisible—until you see them, and then they’re undeniable. Though she is not verbally abused or harassed at the FBI, Clarice is certainly placed (and places herself) in plenty of awkward situations—the leers, the come-ons, the patronizing manner in which she is treated in the field, her soft-spokenness, her short stature, the way no one listens to her due to her lack of confidence. Even the story’s impetus sexualizes her to a degree, as Clarice is an FBI trainee who is cherry-picked by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), agent-in-charge of Behavioral Sciences, for the assignment of interviewing Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. It’s strongly suggested she is given the task due to her uncomfortable demeanor and good looks (“He hasn’t seen a woman in ages,” smirks Dr. Chillton, Lecter’s smug snake of a warden). Clarice’s task is to pick the brain of Lecter, and her job is, apparently, to appear so inexperienced and alluring that Hannibal will be disarmed, refusing to take her seriously. She holds her own in their first meeting, but he is nonetheless cruel and dismissive of her…until, on her way out, a vulgar patient named Miggs (Stuart Rudin) throws semen in her face, which appalls the good doctor and prompts him to help her. The fact that the film’s fundamental relationship is forged through sympathy for the victim of an act of sudden, degrading sexual violence is certainly not incidental.
This points to the secret of The Silence of the Lambs, which is that Hannibal Lecter is not a bad man. Certainly he is an evil man: capable of it, willing to do it. But “bad” indicates he is without positive qualities, which is inaccurate. In addition to his intelligence and manners, he has a streak of compassion that is endearing. There’s something almost perversely chivalric about the way he retaliates against Miggs’s attack by convincing the inmate to swallow his own tongue in shame. Nasty, yes, but such is the life of a civilized killer. The relationship between Clarice and Hannibal, which becomes deeply intimate and semi-paternal, is wonderful not simply because it subverts our expectations for how a serial killer would behave, but because it doesn’t cheat, and sees both the FBI trainee and the cannibalistic predator strictly on their own terms. And also because by making Hannibal, a focused manifestation of the world of serial killers, so unexpectedly charming it grapples with the thematic underpinnings inherent within Thomas Harris’ novels. In Harris’ stories, professionals must immerse themselves in the culture of monsters in order to catch them, but the crucial, disquieting purpose is how in the Harris books, that universe can have it own sway, offering disturbing psychic rewards, even to the good-hearted. After all, if evil was simply ugly, no one would ever do it. To say that Hopkins and Foster are brilliant in the film is perhaps to belabor my point, but, well, it must be said that they are (and they both won Oscars for their trouble).
Lecter is actually not in the movie very much, maybe about fifteen minutes of screen time, which is wise because too much of him would dilute his power (as the 2001 sequel, Hannibal, makes abundantly clear). He is such a strong figure anyway that he lends his essence to scenes that he is not in, like a dark cloud. He sends Clarice on errands based on stray clues laced in his speech, leading to several scenes where we admire Clarice’s pluck in forging ahead even when we worry about her (the scene that takes place in a storage facility is somehow deeply scary, despite the fact that we doubt something will happen to her). Clarice grows as a person throughout the investigation, becoming more authoritative and forceful. She gathers her resolve to order men out of an autopsy bay (the smile Crawford gives her after she does so–I’ve never been able to decide whether it is prideful or condescending). And she discards her standard defensive combat posture by the end of the film, even in a pitch-black basement, hunted by a murderous creature that is toying with her. It is through her relationship with Lecter that she finds her strength, as she gives and gets via his game of quid pro quo. He questions her methods, delves into her personal history, and latches onto her formative motivations. These scenes of makeshift psychotherapy are inherently compelling, maybe because they speak to how well both characters are put together. Clarice’s backstory is touching, and also we note that Lecter is supposedly an esteemed psychiatrist; even while imprisoned, we can see why.
Lecter’s scenes with Clarice are vital not only because they illuminate the mind of a serial killer and speak dread secrets, but also because they reinforce the sickly notion that Clarice has found strength through the help of a monster. She is warned that she doesn’t want Hannibal in her head, but in time he forces the issue, and she compromises herself, in a way that she wrestles satisfaction from. It is one of the great subtle ironies of the film that Clarice is herself a victim of objectification, just like Buffalo Bill’s captive, and yet she herself quietly objectifies Catherine by conflating her rescue with her own desire to be accepted by the bureau, and getting an award for her trouble. By the end of the story, we don’t doubt that she will become a successful FBI agent, but perhaps at the cost of a bit of her humanity. Perhaps just a tiny bit of Hannibal rubbed off on her. These are tricky moments, and while every review singles out the brilliant Hopkins as Lecter, let me take a second to praise Foster, how well she conveys the nervousness, the fragility, the inner steel, the raw need of Clarice.
There is a lot of talk in The Silence of the Lambs—addictive talk that creates a special charge, when it becomes clear that these characters are allowed to discuss things in distinctive voices. Ted Tally’s screenplay is literate in its dialogue, but also terse—rather than lingering over the scenes of Hannibal and Clarice together, the script realizes a little of it goes a long way: it would rather be brief than ever give into pretension. And it even knows when to shut up, wringing maximum fear out of the closing sequence where Clarice stumbles in the dark, as Buffalo Bill watches her—objectifying her, trying to touch her, all before the exciting release of the kill. It’s no coincidence that the smartest thing that Clarice does in this climax is to use the skill that she cultivated during sessions with Dr. Lecter: she listens. Very closely.
The film is a perennial, and it rewards repeat viewings with effortless little grace notes. Like Hannibal’s restraints and cold mask, which make him paradoxically even more frightening than in the moments of violence. Or the odious voice of Dr. Chillton, who stretches out his words as if he wants them to snap. Or the way a corpse sighs when a moth cocoon is extracted from its throat. Or the way Hannibal is sometimes lit harshly, like a demonic presence, and other times softly, like a figure that belongs in front of a classroom. Or his quiet command of necessary posture, as if in constant recoil. Or when Pilcher (Paul Lazar), one of the bug geeks, nervously admits that he’s hitting on Starling, giving a slight chuckle that seems, for just a moment, to well up from the same mental place that Buffalo Bill lives. Or the way the camera regards Bill himself, not really passing judgment, as if he operates outside of our moral understanding, like an alien. And it has an ending that provides a chilling sense of closure, since Dr. Lecter, miles away, informs the moment where Clarice is awarded for her bravery—it feels pointedly cheap, since by catching one murderer she inadvertently helped a worse one escape. One step forward, two steps back.
The Silence of the Lambs is perhaps one of the most influential films of the past twenty years: it kicked off an era of serial killer films through its own official sequels (Hannibal, Red Dragon, the deeply unfortunate Hannibal Rising) and spiritual successors (Se7en, Zodiac, and some films best forgotten) and was acknowledged for heavily influencing one of the defining TV series of the 1990s, The X-Files, in addition to being an important milestone in the history of stories about killers that includes newspaper reports about Jack the Ripper, In Cold Blood, the novels of Caleb Carr, Dexter, and many others. These stories interest us, I think, because they are horrors we hear and read about frequently, and we as a society are hungry for understanding the predators in our midst, because so often such people harbor our own thoughts and desires—amplified, twisted, and unhinged, but recognizable just the same. History mentions maps made when the world was new, where unexplored portions were labeled “here be dragons.” For FBI Behavioral Sciences today, it is possibly much similar, except the map is the mind, and some are tasked with walking on the edge every day. And some days, all it would take to fall off the map, into another world altogether, is the tranquil, wise voice of Hannibal the Cannibal.
NOTES: Another great example of Tak Fujimoto’s insidious photography is the entire, chilly first walk to Lecter’s cell. In one moment, as Clarice and Chillton pass the camera, we linger on the hallway for an extra frame as a shackled inmate suddenly comes into focus, and then disappears as we cut to a different shot, as sudden and unexpected as an act of violence. Moments later, Chillton and Clarice reach the entrance of the basement security room, which is framed by a red gate, justifying a sudden, soft red light across the entire frame. The gate slides open, but the light remains unchanged, to create a hellish feeling as Chillton shows Clarice a photograph of one of Lecter’s victims. What a well-shot film.
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