The Silence of the Lambs: A Hero of Our Time

On Film / Essays — Feb 19, 2018

When Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs opened in theaters on Valentine’s Day 1991, it was clearly one of those rare movies that are at once of their moment and ahead of their time. Many years later, it remains both of these things. As a fluid hybrid of gothic horror film, psychological thriller, and law-enforcement procedural—in other words, a genre picture—it was almost anomalous for having A-list stars, a serious director, and high-end production values. The critics were laudatory, save a few who were offended. The hooded cobra eyes of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), the cannibalistic serial killer, peered out from the front pages and covers of newspapers and newsmagazines. The box office was excellent. And, most surprisingly, the film won five Academy Awards—best picture, best director, best actor (Hopkins), best actress (Jodie Foster), and best adapted screenplay (Ted Tally)—only the second movie ever to win in all of those categories.

The Silence of the Lambs was not the first art film or prestige picture to take on the subject of the serial killer. Classic examples include Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and, more peripherally, G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). These films depict, respectively, three pathological archetypes: the child murderer; the Bluebeard figure whose victims are his wives (good women); and Jack the Ripper, who specializes in killing prostitutes (bad women). But it wasn’t until Psycho (1960) that Alfred Hitchcock, by crossing the horror movie with the psychological thriller, established the conventions that have ruled the genre for nearly sixty years. Psycho was adapted from Robert Bloch’s 1959 true-crime best seller based on the case of Ed Gein, a small-town-Wisconsin handyman. His necrophiliac compulsions escalated from digging up corpses (most of them buried in the immediate vicinity of the body of his mother) to murdering at least two women. He kept trophies from his victims—their heads and pieces of their skin. In addition to Psycho, Gein partly inspired such disparate films as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), James Benning’s avant-garde Landscape Suicide (1987), and The Silence of the Lambs.

No stranger to movie violence and horror, Demme made his first features, Caged Heat (1974) and Crazy Mama (1975), in the Roger Corman exploitation factory, but his appreciation for oddballs and underdogs soon surfaced, in Citizens Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980). Literally and figuratively, his filmography is all over the map, but whether big or small, fiction or documentary, every one of his films is unmistakably Demme-esque, marked by a passion for social justice, a love of music, and a generosity of spirit that allowed him to see the possibility of a better world, even at the risk of sentimentality. His live-performance documentaries, including the 1984 Stop Making Sense (the Talking Heads in concert) and the 1987 Swimming to Cambodia (Spalding Gray’s most political monologue), and his documentaries about political activism, Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988) and Cousin Bobby (1992), are as memorable as Philadelphia (1993), the first big Hollywood movie on the AIDS crisis. And as imperfect as they are, Something Wild (1986) and Rachel Getting Married (2008) are largely pleasurable movies that provoke heated and productive discussions by female-identified audiences around gender and race. All told, however, The Silence of the Lambs is the filmmaker’s most fulfilled and engrossing work.

Demme’s dive into the deviant undercurrents of America at the end of the Reagan-Bush era gripped audiences who had been primed by another auteur’s breaking of the barriers between art and exploitation. Moody and visceral as no prime-time series had ever been before, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990–91) was a twisted tale founded on the naked corpse of a teenage girl—Laura Palmer. A quarter of a century later, viewers who had been bingeing on the original Twin Peaks as it was released on various digital platforms along with its prequel, the theatrical feature Fire Walk with Me (1992), avidly consumed Twin Peaks: The Return during its eighteen-episode run on Showtime, finding themselves trapped in a wormhole, also known as the Lynchian unconscious, where the homicidal law of the father is forever unchecked and unchanged. The return of Twin Peaks roughly coincided with the appearance of a new restoration of The Silence of the Lambs in theaters, and now in this release. This dialectician of gender in popular culture relishes the timing.

One major thing that distinguishes Demme’s film from Twin Peaks—and from the vast majority of serial-killer investigative dramas, including those of another contemporary auteur, David Fincher—is the fact that his hero is a woman. Clarice Starling (Foster) matches wits with one serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, in order to elicit the clues that will allow her to track down another, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), in time to save the latest young woman (Brooke Smith) whom Bill is preparing to murder. Fincher’s Mindhunter series (which premiered in 2017), as well as his earlier serial-killer narratives, Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007), follow the usual pattern of male law enforcement pursuing male murderers. Mindhunter and The Silence of the Lambs have a common source, the work of John Douglas in the Behavorial Science Unit of the FBI. The hero of the first film in which Hannibal Lecter appears, Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), is also based on the real-life Douglas, who then reappears (as Jack Crawford, Clarice’s mentor) in Thomas Harris’s novel The Silence of the Lambs (1988), from which Demme’s film is adapted.

It was Harris who took the focus off Douglas in order to make his hero—the embodiment of the law, dedicated to putting a stop to the most perverse legacy of patriarchy—a woman. But the collaboration between Tally, Demme, and Foster transforms Clarice into a more radically feminist character than she was in the novel. Faithful to Harris’s plot, they shift its tone and meaning. Harris’s Clarice, for all her courage and desire for independence, was still the good daughter who needed to be valued by the men in her life. She was emotionally tied not only to her real father—the policeman who left her an orphan at age eleven—but to the substitute fathers: Lecter (the bad) and Crawford (the good). Harris’s Clarice became romantically involved with Crawford, an unconsummated, guilty, Oedipal attachment, since he was married and his wife was dying. In the film, Clarice has no romantic entanglements, and she refuses to be patronized by either Crawford or Lecter.

In its deliberate, unabashed, and uncompromising feminism, The Silence of the Lambs is to the horror–psychological thriller combo what Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is to classical fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood.” Both works take familiar stories—so familiar that they’ve become part of our cultural unconscious—and turn them upside down. When I interviewed Demme in 1991, just before The Silence of the Lambs was released, he said that what immediately appealed to him in the script was the character of Clarice and the way Tally played with genre in his adaptation of Harris’s novel. “It’s a suspense movie with a female protagonist who is never in sexual peril. It’s a slasher movie that is devoid not only of slasher scenes but of the anticipation of seeing them.” And for a female viewer—for all viewers who allow themselves to identify with a female hero—it is harrowing, exhilarating, and sad beyond measure.

The film calls up that mix of emotions from first to last. In one of the great opening sequences in narrative-movie history, Demme places Clarice on a rough path through a thicket of towering trees. An early-morning mist envelops their gnarled branches, nearly obscuring Clarice, who appears in the distance, rising as if she’s reached the top of an unseen hill and continuing her run straight toward us. Demme’s crane-mounted moving camera avoids so many traps. It doesn’t stalk Clarice from behind, or secretively peer at her through the tree trunks. It is simply her mirror—thus, we are her mirror—as she tests her endurance and agility on this FBI training course that is also the forest of children’s nightmares. Clarice is concentrated on the task at hand, but the gloomy setting, the threatening sounds all around her, and, most of all, Howard Shore’s score, with its Mahler-like surging melodies and yearning harmonies driven by an ominously accelerating bass line, speak to inchoate fears and desires and barely repressed feelings of abandonment and loss—everything she tries to vanquish with her commitment to law and order. Demme’s direction, the mise-en-scène, and the score magnify Clarice’s interiority, but even without them, these feelings would be evident in Foster’s every glance and gesture. It is a complicated, perfectly calibrated performance, most expressive in its reticence and refusal of accommodation. The film could not exist without her.

Clarice’s solitary run is interrupted—just as she comes face-to-face with a sign bearing the FBI’s injunction “Hurt, Agony, Pain, Love It, Pride”—by a male superior who tells her that Crawford, their boss, wants to see her. As Clarice runs off, Demme holds on his face, his puzzled expression the first example of the reaction to her from every man whose path she will cross: What is this alien being doing here? Crawford seems to value Clarice, but he also withholds information, manipulating her in the interest of the investigation at hand. Tacked on a wall of Crawford’s office is a tabloid clipping with the headline “Bill Skins Fifth,” and below it, Polaroids of flayed female corpses. Clarice stares intently but keeps her distance—as does Demme’s camera. That distance is also maintained a few scenes later when Clarice must examine the corpse of another woman murdered by “Bill.” The few shots of the dead girl are all from Clarice’s point of view. There is no sensationalism here or anywhere in the movie—only grief and contained anger. Crawford believes that Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and psychopath whose ferocious oral impulses find their release in language and, less acceptably, in eating human flesh, may know the identity of this new serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Since Crawford helped to confine Lecter for life in a hospital for the criminally insane, he doubts that the doctor will have much interest in helping him. He sends Clarice off to Lecter as a lure, armed with a fake questionnaire. If Lecter is intrigued by Clarice, he won’t be able to resist playing the omniscient analyst—leaking clues. “Whatever you do, Clarice, don’t tell him anything about yourself,” Crawford warns. It’s a bit of paternalistic advice that demands to be ignored, especially by this hero, intent on finding her own way.

In terms of the frightening fairy-tale world that Demme’s gothic imagery suggests and Lecter’s locutions zing home, Clarice’s desire is not to marry the prince but to rescue the maiden (here, she is the female senator’s daughter who has become Buffalo Bill’s “next special lady”). On that reversal, her identity rests. It’s also what fascinates Lecter, and what wins him to her cause: unlike most heroes of either gender, she’s more moved by vulnerability than she is attracted to power. Demme shoots the scenes between Lecter and Clarice in extreme close-up, shot-countershot, with the actors looking almost directly into the camera. You can see the tension in Clarice’s face, her concentrated struggle not only to get the information she needs from Lecter but also not to be overwhelmed by him—to maintain her separation from him. When Lecter points out her limitations and failures, there’s no doubt she feels ashamed and angry, but it’s because she hasn’t lived up to her own expectations.

Demme knows how to map psyche and history onto landscape and objects. The Silence of the Lambs is packed with three hundred years of relics—of white America. Every time Lecter sends Clarice on a treasure hunt—to his storage warehouse, for example—she finds a flag or two tucked away with the rusty rifles, the dressmakers’ dummies, and the odd severed head preserved in a jar. The flags look as if they’ve seen better days. Detective stories and psychoanalysis both investigate traumas of the past. Here, the two (Clarice’s search for Buffalo Bill and Lecter’s unorthodox analysis of Clarice) are mixed against a background of government buildings, chicken farms, and lonely airports where everyone is walking around looking bewildered. Viewing the film today, we might understand that the economic decline and social alienation of the “heartland” existed long before the Obama presidency. And that that bewilderment has now mutated into uncontrollable anger.

A specific angry response—no bewilderment involved—greeted The Silence of the Lambs upon its initial release. Gay, queer, and trans viewers called attention to the fact that gay and transgender people are far too often homicide victims and almost never perpetrators. Even Demme admitted that there was a problem in the depiction of Buffalo Bill, although he also tried to defend it by saying that there was dialogue in the film implying that Bill was too insane to be transgender. Since Bill’s desire was to get out of the skin in which he was born and replace it with skins of women he murdered for that purpose, you certainly could say he was pathological, but that doesn’t cancel his desire to transform his gender expression. To make the construction even worse, Bill cavorts around his lair almost naked, with his penis tucked back, and, like a parody of a West Hollywood gay man of the late twentieth century, clutches a poodle to his nipple-ringed breast. I have no doubt that if Demme were alive to remake The Silence of the Lambs today, the character of Bill would be modified.

Near the end of the film, in the aftermath of Clarice’s deadly confrontation with Buffalo Bill, the camera lingers for a moment in a corner of the killer’s den, now lit with a shaft of light from a window broken in the struggle. First, there’s a medium shot of a child-size American flag leaning against a dusty army helmet, and then a close-up of a sea-blue paper mobile with a butterfly design—a bit of Chinatown interior decoration or a trophy from Vietnam, Bill’s inheritance and his legacy. Which is why the final image, of Lecter sauntering down the crowded main street of a Caribbean island, is more disturbing than anything that has come before. The serial killer is now an American gift to the Third World, a fragmentation bomb, ready to explode.

Given the power and complexity of Foster’s performance and the fact that Clarice’s subjectivity runs the film, it has been troubling—no, infuriating—to watch the Hannibal Lecter character become a superstar. Hannibal the serial killer has become a serial monster—like Norman Bates or Freddy Krueger—the focus and raison d’être of more Harris novels and more screen adaptations, in characterizations ranging from the loathsome to the laughably inept. Evidently, readers and viewers crave contact with the psychiatrist and intellectual who wants to literally eat them alive, rather than with the lonely law-enforcement woman dedicated to saving the most vulnerable among them. For nearly three decades, Clarice has been without sisters, mothers, or daughters (although the detective Robin Griffin in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake could surely be seen as a cousin). If ever there was a moment to rally around Clarice, ensuring that she will never be alone again, it is right now.

Parts of this essay have been updated from pieces that appeared in 1991 in Sight & Sound and in the Criterion Collection’s 1994 laserdisc edition of The Silence of the Lambs.