THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

The_Silence_of_the_Lambs_posterCome with us, back to Valentine’s Day, 1991. All over America, suitors are planning the perfect romantic evening. Dinner perhaps? And look, a new spooky movie opening today. What better than a few scares and the winter chill to send that special someone into your arms! I think this Valentine’s Day is going to end very well, don’t you? Two hours of cannibalism, mutilation, flying semen and lotion-in-the-basket later, I’m pretty sure The Silence of the Lambs ruined thousands of first dates, but it was on its way to becoming a modern classic.

Let me start by addressing the obvious: This is a movie that wouldn’t be made today. It is undeniably transphobic. Jame Gumb – the only manifestly queer character – commits crimes that are inextricably linked to his gender dysmorphia. This is a world where being trans is pathology, and one that can be expressed violently. I want to acknowledge this, but I don’t want to spend too much time belaboring the point, castigating a movie from almost three decades ago. I’ll leave the subject behind by saying that in writing this, I’m genuinely second guessing which pronouns with which to use in discussing the film’s antagonist- evidence that we’re living in a future The Silence of the Lambs could not anticipate.

Silence is a thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock. It plays like a magic show, with audience expectation managed by misdirection. We start with a young woman jogging alone at dawn. Are we about to witness a crime? No, it’s Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) training for the physical requirements of her training. Buffalo Bill cuts off his victim’s clothes. Are we witnessing some sex crime? No, he has an entirely different and macabre agenda. Of course there is the famous switcheroo at the film’s climax, where we think the FBI team is raiding Buffalo Bill’s house, but no – Starling walking alone into the villain’s lair and her comrades are in an empty house hundreds of miles away.

The most crucial act of misdirection, though, falls to an actor. Anthony Hopkins is tasked with giving a portrayal Hannibal Lecter sufficiently engaging that our eyes never wander to the plausibility of a middle aged psychiatrist-turned-cannibal who can pick locks, escape detection and seemingly kill at will despite having no allies and a decade of only whatever exercise could be managed inside a small cell. The veteran actor’s perversely charismatic cannibal snob is what allows the movie to work. It was a career defining- and award winning- performance for a reason. It probably also helps explain why an earlier adaptation of the character, sans-Hopkins was not a success.

I have a deep and profound love for Jodie Foster. Since I was a child, her acting has been among my favorite. Her characters are complex; her delivery is raw while maintaining nuance. At the same time, films she has been in terrify me.

She is expert at expressing both female empowerment and strength and the perpetual state of threat all women live under. The threat of sexual violence. The threat of men in power. In this film, The Accused, and others in which she plays the lead, we can – as audience members – feel the quiet terror that always courses just under the surface, when walking through the world while female.

She exudes the feeling of trying to advance, fight and be strong while knowing to some you will always be prey.

She is absolutely fantastic in this film, and she is a perfect foil to Lecter. He is fascinated by her, and hellbent on getting into her psychology. One questions I leave the film with is – does she? In their poignant scene, from whence the movie gets its title, you feel as if she’s going to reveal childhood sexual abuse – but that’s not it. What she reveals is still haunting; it still evokes terror. Did Lecter get to her? Does he haunt her still? It’s a question for the ages.

In Silence of the Lambs, she plays a young FBI agent in training, who is assigned the task of speaking with the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter about another serial killer, Buffalo Bill. As Mouse mentioned, Buffalo Bill skins his victims. There is a lot going on here – and there are some profoundly offensive and transphobic elements to this work. The aspect of the film that fascinates me is of course the dynamic between Lecter and Starling. Their dialogue will forever stand out in my mind as some of the greatest performances in history.

Was I so concerned with talking about the guy who eats people that I forgot to talk about Clarice Starling? This was one child actor who turned out OK. Last year, Nicholas Barber wrote a great retrospective on Silence for BBC News in which he argued for turning our attention back toward Foster’s Starling rather than Hopkins’ Lecter (although he did kind of steal the movie). There were things we were certainly aware of in 1991, but in 2018 seem to stand in sharper focus.

A few months after The Silence of the Lambs opened in theaters, America was treated to a horror show of a different kind: the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. After that, terms like ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘hostile work environment’ became cultural buzzwords. In the film, Starling is a serious professional starting her career, and as she navigates a difficult case, she is constantly pushing past men attempting advances of varying unpalatability. As Barber points out, even Lecter- whom we’ve come to view as a genius supervillain- comes across as surprisingly puerile in his unconcealed interest in Starling’s sexual history.

I think Foster plays Starling great, first in the macho, male-dominated world of law enforcement, then in the horrific world of Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. She’s strong, but not unbelievably so. She’s scared as well, and we can see her pushing through it, right until she shoots Jame Gumb (the classic storytelling device of the hero resolving the story by accomplishing the task they failed in the beginning when the stakes were low).

Before Starling meets Hannibal Lecter, Crawford warns her that she doesn’t want him in her head. Does he get in? Perhaps, but here is the thing: whether she realizes it or not, she has made the trick go both ways. As his sketch papers reveal, he is fascinated by her. And the final phone call scene is key. Not only does he promise he won’t hunt her, she flatly refuses to reciprocate. She really has graduated in every sense. Plus that scene sets up one of the great closing lines in movie history.

The closing line is pretty epic. I have to admit that before rewatching this, I had no idea there was a sequel to this film, or that there were several books expanding on the story of Hannibal Lecter. Even his name became a sort of popularized slang for cannibals – it definitely intruded on the cultural zeitgeist. I also didn’t know that Red Dragon, the book that precedes Silence of the Lambs, was made into a film called Manhunter, or that the author of these books, Thomas Harris, studied criminal psychology at Quantico in order to prepare for writing. Perhaps these are worth a spin.

Sadly there also seems to have been a musical adaptation of Silence of the Lambs simply called Silence! I can’t imagine that was any good at all but who knows.

I looked back and was glad to see that both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster got Oscars for their acting in this film in addition to the film winning as Best Picture. That seems fair and well-deserved. I remember as a young person this film being my introduction to Jodie Foster, and to this day she remains one of my favorite actors of all time. It was a treat to revisit this work. As for Anthony, you can’t top his Hannibal. Unfortunately I think it’s impacted his social life – when Martha Stewart went on one date with him, apparently, she couldn’t get the character out of her head and thus had to leave it to one day. I suppose when you’re that good at what you do, those are some of the costs.

True story! I heard Martha Stewart talk about that in an interview.

I’m swerving a little off topic here, but there’s one thing I’d like to mention since the topic of less-than-PC depictions came up. In the winter of 1991, the television show Twin Peaks was moving into the second half of its second season. No one was watching at that point; the quality had dropped precipitously. And that’s a shame, because what the show did, at that point, have several interesting characters. This includes a genderqueer character who is a competent and valiant officer of the law rather than an object of pity or ridicule, and a character with a physical disability whose use of a wheelchair is entirely incidental to their place in the story and is in fact seen by other characters as a romantic interest. Yeah, those Twin Peaks storylines from the later episodes stank, but they were forward-looking in their portrayal of under-represented groups.

On Oscar night, not only did The Silence of the Lambs overcome the Academy Awards’ long standing aversion to “genre films”, it became one of only three films to win the so-called Big Five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s sometimes cited as the only horror film to win Best Picture, although its status as a horror film is debatable. I see it more as a “crime thriller,” and I think the horror label may have more to do with the spooky poster. Anyhow, I was thrilled to revisit this movie. It’s been years since I actually watched it start to finish, and it has certainly held up.

Say, when Starling is pursuing Jame Gumb through his murder dungeon, she comes across a decaying woman’s corpse. Do you think this was intended as a deliberate nod to Psycho? Oh, and if anyone is interested in seeing Hopkins as a different variety of unhinged killer, check out 1978’s Magic.

Sounds like we have something else to check out next Valentine’s Day.

Sidenote: I picked up a Thomas Harris book for Mouse after we watched this. I am curious if the written word stands up to the film well. Here’s hoping.

Also nominated in 1991:
Beauty and the Beast
Bugsy
JFK
The Prince of Tides

Next film: THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929)

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