Classic Review – Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)

INTRODUCTION

In 1991, dozens of happy accidents converged into one of the greatest thrillers of all time:  The Silence of the Lambs.  It is the most recent film to win Academy Awards in all five of the major categories (both leading actors, screenplay, director, and best picture).  As that distinction may suggest, practically every aspect of the film boasts superlatives.  The performances are exceptional.  Ted Tally’s adaption of the screenplay structures the film with the familiar beats of the hero’s journey, but provides enough twists to keep us on edge.  Jonathan Demme’s direction shows restraint and courage, and produces moments rife with tension, many of which do not exist on the page.  The characters, technical work, and writing all cooperate towards a single goal:  championing a theme of female strength and intellect in a world dominated by men, and the courage that it takes to confront true evil.

Working from the novel by Thomas Harris of the same name, Ted Tally adapted the screenplay for The Silence of the Lambs, and he does a fantastic job of structuring the narrative (check here for a scene-by-scene breakdown of the screenplay).  It is the quintessential hero’s journey, with Clarice answering a call-to-action from her mentor Jack Crawford to confront an antagonist, Buffalo Bill.  This basic structure is formulaic, but allows the audience to quickly empathize with Clarice.  Various flashbacks and other editing and structural tricks emphasize this empathy (and we’ll get into those later).  Then, by slightly tweaking this structure, Tally is able to augment the story.  As a single example, consider Hannibal Lecter as Clarice’s true mentor, as it is his guidance that actually spurns Clarice into action, time and time again.

CHARACTERS

The character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is a masterful twist on the archetypes of both the mentor and the villain.  After his introduction, he is cast as a “bad guy”, especially since everyone is quick to build up his intrinsic evilness by referring to him as a “monster” or “psychopath”.  In the first meeting with Clarice, he effortlessly shifts from cordial to harsh, with a biting and absolutely devastating effect.  But then, as their relationship matures, Lecter makes clear that he will be Clarice’s consummate teacher in this story.  Throughout the arc of her story, she comes back to Lecter’s lessons again and again.  It is a stunning about-face, and a great source of the appreciation the audience has for Lecter, despite his monstrous qualities.

When Anthony Hopkins found out that he was cast as Hannibal Lecter based on his performance as Dr. Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man (1980), he questioned Jonathan Demme, “But Dr. Treves was a good man.” Demme replied, “So is Lecter, he is a good man too. Just trapped in an insane mind.”  Hopkins used this framework as a jumping-off point for the character, and realized that this dynamic of the insane genius was well-represented in the works of Shakespeare.  Hopkins said, “Lecter, like Iago and Richard III, walks on a razor’s edge, and excites because [he is] daring without any uncertainty.”  This is the guttural appeal of Lecter:  though we recognize his insanity, we also respect his genius.

Hopkins’s performance is remarkable for many reasons, chief among them is the effectiveness Hopkins gets out of his scant screen time.  In a film that runs 2 hours and 18 minutes, Lecter’s scenes stretch to a mere 24 minutes and 52 seconds, and only about 16 minutes of that is Lecter on the screen.  Despite the meager time afforded him, Hopkins mesmerizes and captures the imagination in terrifying ways.  We’ve already mentioned the deftness with which he manipulates and insults when interacting with others, but there are dreadful physical aspects to the performance as well.  As a simple example, consider the very first moment he is seen on screen, standing stolid in the center of his cell:

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Good morning.

This is Lecter at his most unnerving, and Hopkins at his most perceptive.  The actor argued to begin the scene this way.  Hopkins intuitively knew that Lecter has been talked-up to the audience throughout the first fifteen minutes of the film.  Indeed, practically every preceding scene revolves around Lecter.  Crawford’s assignment for Clarice introduces the nature of Lecter’s crimes and his genius, then we get a J-cut to “He’s a monster” and the meeting with Dr. Chilton, receive ghastly details of Lecter’s savagery in the stairwell, and finish with Barney telling Clarice, “They told you, don’t get near the glass”.  The entire opening to the film is characterization of Lecter.  Before we even see him we’re ready to meet a psychopathic monster.

Instead, when we’re confronted by a patient, cordial, and seemingly normal man.  The juxtaposition is severely unsettling.  This is a single example of the mastery of Hopkins in this role; there are many others.  Hence, despite appearing on screen for just over a quarter of an hour, Dr. Hannibal Lecter rests comfortably at the very top of this list.  (Don’t worry, Clarice is at #6 on the corresponding list – If you couldn’t tell, this is a very good film).

Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling is the equal of Hopkins.   Clarice is our proxy in the story, and without an astounding performance from Foster, the film will falter.  Foster had already won an Oscar for her portrayal as Sarah Tobias in The Accused, so the level of her talent should not be a surprise.  What does surprise is the deftness and subtlety with which Foster imbues Clarice with emotions.  It is clear when she is wounded emotionally by a cutting remark from Lecter or Crawford, and she allows a tinge of disgust to pass her face when she is hit on by Dr Chilton or the bug scientist.  She conveys a real sense of fear when dealing with Lecter, especially in the eponymous sequence when describing running away from the ranch.

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Clarice, doing research like a bad-ass.  She can also run fast and use riot gear.

That particular sequence is Foster’s brightest jewel in the film – because it shouldn’t have even been in the final cut!  Recall that Demme used flashbacks as a mechanism to encourage the audience to empathize with Clarice.  There are two true flashbacks to Clarice as a child in the film:  one after her initial meeting with Hannibal Lecter, and one at the funeral home while investigating Buffalo Bill’s latest victim.  But the screenplay has a third:  Clarice’s story about trying to save the lamb from slaughter.  She was to narrate this flashback in voice-over as she was talking to Lecter, marrying it to the earlier flashbacks visually.  Instead, once Demme saw the performance Foster was giving as part of the dialogue between her and Lecter, he completely scrapped the idea of a “true” flashback.  Demme went so far as to say, “If I cut from that performance, the Director’s Guild would take away my membership card.”

Foster’s exemplary performance births the magnificent character of Clarice Starling.  She has been the lone women in a sea of men for her entire life, ever since idolizing her father and deciding to follow in her footsteps into the world of law enforcement.  The Silence of the Lambs can be thought of as a story about one woman trying to save the life of another woman.  Besides those two characters (the hero and the victim), there are no other major female characters.  Ardelia and Senator Ruth Martin can best be described as ancillary characters there to augment their respective women:  Ardelia augments Clarice’s character and story, and the Senator similarly mirrors the plight of Catharine (but, obviously, to a lesser degree).  Regardless, and critically, all the women in the film are eminently courageous and capable.

As mentioned previously, Clarice’s story is that of the hero’s journey.  For her journey, an essential characteristic is Clarice’s isolation.  She has to confront many aspects of the patriarchy throughout the story.  It starts with innocuous transgressions like Dr. Chilton’s romantic passes, and becomes more severe and disgusting ones like those she suffers at the hands of Miggs and Jame Gumb.  These are not relegated to physical or overt subjugations, either.  One of the more explicit and emotional instances of the prejudice that Clarice faces along the way comes at the hand of her so-called mentor, Jack Crawford.  Though he attempts to play-off his insistence that he and the policeman talk away from her, Clarice daggers him:  “A room of police look to you to see how to act.  It matters.”  Powerful men setting poor examples for their subordinates is a particularly nefarious source of prejudice.

The most interesting part of Clarice’s character is her fully-developed arc, and how often along the way she is beset with choices.  Early on, she is emboldened by advancing her career and proving to everyone that she can be a great agent.  Though her analytical skills are top-notch, she is quickly humbled by Dr. Lecter.  Later on, her fake offer to Lecter backfires horribly, showing that she is capable of missteps.  Regardless, she continues unabated, sneaking past Chilton to chide Lecter about his obvious anagram tricks and get the real story.  Finally, Starling’s efforts not only correctly identify that Buffalo Bill knew his first victim, but through follow-ups she finds the killer and rescues Catherine.  She is an efficacious female character, beset on all sides by violence and leers (sometimes, quite literally).  Still, she triumphs.  It is a unique and powerful character, and a great role model.

DIRECTION AND THEMES

Director Jonathan Demme makes many choices to practically guarantee that we empathize with Clarice.  The flashback sequences have been mentioned previously, but there are more cinematic examples as well.  A more subtle choice involves the placement of the camera in scenes between Clarice and other characters.  When talking to Clarice, characters often talk direct to camera, as though they are addressing the spectator.  By contrast, when Clarice is talking to them, she is usually looking slightly off-camera.  Demme explains that this was done so the audience would directly experience Clarice’s point of view, but not the rest of the characters’.  This manipulation of alternating POV shots is especially evident in Hannibal Lecter’s introductory scene, which is an absolute masterpiece of cinematic storytelling. [And I have analyzed separately in a companion piece, coming soon!].

silenceofthelambs
The end of Clarice and Lecter’s first meeting.  A shot-by-shot analysis of this sequence is available here.

A related technique employed by Tally and Demme involves the habitual cross-cutting of Clarice’s story with her ultimate antagonist:  Buffalo Bill.  Often in the story, as Clarice learns something important or progresses closer to the killer, the film is quick to shift the narrative over to Bill for a short portion, to show what he is up to.  This helps remind us that Clarice is stumbling in the darkness, by showing us much more information than she will ever be able to deduce.  As the frequency and length of these interruptions increases over the course of the film, they imply a distinct feeling that Clarice and Bill’s stories are coming closer and closer together, until finally they are one-and-the-same.

Demme does a lot of great work on The Silence of the Lambs.  We’ve already got a great sense of his camera work, but we also have to praise his pacing.  Some of this is the organization of scenes, as mentioned previously, but he also creates additional meaning with the camera and editing choices.  The most obvious example is near the climax of the film, where the sequence is essentially rapid-fire cross-cuts between Clarice Starling at Jame Gumb’s door and Jack Crawford raiding the other house.  This cross-cutting technique is apparent in the actual screenplay, but Demme chops things up even more in the final edit of the film.  The result is a wonderful tension-building fake-out, and by the time we have realized what is happening, our surprise is matched only by our dramatically ironic fear for Clarice’s life.  This technique could have been mishandled; instead Demme transforms a ringing doorbell into an edge-of-your-seat sequence.

And the film follows that sequence with one of the most harrowing and thrilling scenes in history:  Clarice pursuing Buffalo Bill through his dungeon, eventually in complete darkness.  The technique, symbolism, and acting in this climax are all masterful.  First realize that this scene is not shot in night-vision.  Foster is acting in full light which was colored green in post-production (you can see shadows on Clarice occasionally, a rare mistake from Demme).  Regardless, the slow, wandering pursuit through absolute darkness is terrifying.  Clarice’s eventual execution of Bill is thematic and poignant – it simultaneously destroys the villain, repopulates the world with light, and culminates on the idyllic symbol of Bill’s pathology:  the Death’s-Head Moth, a creature with a design fabricated so as to symbolize Bill’s transformation into a woman (more on that later).

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Cover art with Death’s-Head Moth (not a real thing).

Great films provide moments that become cultural icons.  Excellent films keep us coming back because they say something important.  Singular films offer new ideas and themes each time you watch them.  The Silence of the Lambs is that kind of a film.  When you see it the first time, you’re caught up in the tension and thriller aspects of the narrative, but you probably understand that it is about good and evil on some basal level.  As you watch it more, it becomes a powerful feminist story about the maturation of Clarice Starling into a full-fledged hero.  Later, you start to consider the more nefarious thematic elements involving the two killers in the film, Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter.  Concepts like the nature of psychopathy, sexual abuse / trauma, and even ideas of transformation bubble to the surface, among many othersThe Silence of the Lambs is replete with thematic material, to the point that the film has much to offer – even after dozens of viewings.

HISTORICAL CRITIQUES

The film is so full of ideas that it is perhaps unsurprising that many activist critics found serious intellectual flaws in the film when it was released – and continue to do so to this day.  These critiques generally condemn the film for one of three reasons:  1.)  the depiction of brutal violence against women, 2.) the patriarchal subtext which reduces Clarice and other female characters to mere women in distress, and 3.) the transphobia / homophobia of having the killer expressing a non-cis gender / sexuality.  While critiques like these have basis in the film, they are each surface-level readings of the text that fail to appreciate the greater whole of the film, and are easily refuted.

Though there is often great violence and brutality in the film, it is absurd to claim that the greatest violence in The Silence of the Lambs both happens to women and is glorified.  The most violent sequence in the film, and the only which could be considered “glorified”, involves Lecter’s assault on two police officers.  Most of the violence against women happens off-screen or is implied in the narrative.  The closest the audience gets to Buffalo Bill’s savagery is in the autopsy sequence, which is cold, scientific, and respectful of the victim.  There certainly isn’t any glorification Bill’s violence.  It is cast as serious, horrible, and wrongful.

Characterizing Clarice Starling as a “women in distress” or a woman who only succeeds in a man’s world by adapting herself to the patriarchy is also incredibly lazy.  Clarice is a capable woman in a sea of men, but it should be evident that her successes are not due to aping the actions of the men around her, but due to her own skills and attributes.  Though Lecter pushes her in the right direction, she is an active participant in the repartee.  She’s also the only character in the film that recognizes Lecter’s penchant for word-games.  The lead-up to the climactic scene of the film directly contrasts a male solution with a female solution:  Crawford’s raid is based on traditional detective work and flounders, whereas Clarice’s discovery of Jamie Gumb is birthed from her outstanding intuition, understanding, and empathy with those in Fredericka’s life.  The support for Clarice’s personal method couldn’t be more clear.

Furthermore, each female character that appears in the film is powerful.  Ardelia is intelligent and capable, and aids Clarice throughout the film.  Senator Martin faces Hannibal Lecter with impressive courage, even after his barbs.  Catherine is far from a passive victim.  She uses ingenuity and defiance to turn the tables on Bill, despite being in a completely sunken and debilitating position.  If you don’t like The Silence of the Lambs, that is perfectly fine.  But don’t try to argue that it glorifies violence against damsels-in-distress, or suggests that the only way a woman can succeed is by adopting patriarchal values.  The text blatantly refutes these claims.

silence-of-the-lambs
Hannibal Lecter is lying through his teeth and creepy metal bars.

The critique of the film which historically holds the most water involves the controversy surrounding Jame Gumb’s sexuality or gender identity.  Activist groups like GLAAD have claimed that the character is a gay stereotype.  Others argue that showing a “savage transsexual1” is a reprehensible portrayal, and only furthers repugnant classifications of trans- people.  Again, these knee-jerk readings barely scratch the surface of the actual themes of the story.  First and most obviously, Jame Gumb is not homosexual.  The only reference to his sexuality is by Lecter in front of Senator Martin – a conversation in which Lecter espouses lies.  Then when Lecter is profiling Buffalo Bill, his breakthrough is based on two critical ideas:  trauma and transformation.  He concludes that Bill was made into a psychopathic monster as a young boy, and that he is not a real transsexual, he simply wants a different identity.  These points are crystal clear, both in the screenplay and in the finished film.

The symbolic importance of the death’s-head moth supports this interpretation from Bill’s perspective.  The design of the moth’s carapace adds an additional layer, as the “skull” on the moth is in fact made of multiple naked women transforming their bodies into a single whole – much like Bill means to use pieces of women for his suit.  This could suggest, as Lecter does, that the killing of women and even the transformation into a woman, is merely incidental for Bill.  His ultimate goal is to become something different, and this moth is the ideal symbol of that transformation.

moth-in-voluptus-mors
You didn’t think we’d get through this without a red circle, did you?

Jame Gumb is not homosexual or transsexual – he is self-loathing on the most fundamental level imaginable.  The solution that occurs to him is the most comprehensive change that he can fathom:  a change from man to woman.   Director Jonathan Demme corroborates this interpretation, insisting that the character of Jamie Gumb does not have a sexuality or true conception of gender identity due to the trauma he experienced.  In addition, multiple different lines in the film and screenplay go to great lengths to characterize transsexual people as unaggressive and in need of some help.  The film practically bends over backwards asserting that:  a.)  Transsexuals are not psychotic monsters (in fact, far from it), and b.) Bill is not even a true transsexual, he is something different entirely.  Indeed, Clarice’s line attempting to explain Lecter, “They don’t have a name for what he is”, could apply to Buffalo Bill just as easily.

Still, Demme admits that he treated this subject matter with insufficient weight in the film, and could have done a better job characterizing Gumb’s psychology.  Regardless, it is irresponsible for a critic to infer that the character of Jame Gumb is homosexual or transsexual, ignore all evidence to the contrary, and then criticize the film for stereotyping.  It is worse still to vilify the film for this assumed “portrayal”, given all the obvious work it does to assert the exact opposite.  But the audience of the film also has a responsibility here to look beyond the surface-level.  If the main idea you glean from The Silence of the Lambs is, “That homo-tranny was weird and scary, I guess they’re all like that”, then you’re guilty of a much worse sin than the critics.  The Silence of the Lambs demands your active participation; if you’re only prepared to knee-jerk towards outrage or bigotry, then you should to go back to being spoon-fed your movies by Michael Bay.

CONCLUSION

Despite the criticism, The Silence of the Lambs persists as one of the greatest films of all time.  A confluence of good fortune and outstanding talent resulted in one of those seminal films that always seems to have more to offer the enterprising spectator.  Watching The Silence of the Lambs, we are treated to titanic performances, chilling drama, and masterful methods of visual storytelling.  All the while, the narrative hooks and builds upon itself with one iconic sequence after another.  But even more impressive is that this pulpy thriller is able to champion multiple remarkable themes, from one of the definitive depictions of feminine strength, to the unnerving nature of psychopathy and that bizarre tryst between genius and insanity.  No film is perfect, but The Silence of the Lambs may be one of the closest.


1The word, “transsexual” is used throughout The Silence of the Lambs, both in the novel and the screenplay.  While I am aware that today other terms may be preferred, I feel it is historically accurate and appropriate to discuss these ideas using the words present in the primary texts.  

5 thoughts on “Classic Review – Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)

Add yours

  1. Great in depth analysis of this movie.☺

    It shows more than a man with cannibalistic tendencies, Hannibal is a smart and sophisticated man trapped as you put it rightly in an insane mind.

    ” I do wish we could chat longer..but I’m having an old friend for dinner”.

    Liked by 1 person

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