The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs ★★★★½

Part of Hoop-Tober

“People will say we’re in love.”

In the spring of 1992, one might have been forgiven for thinking the Academy Awards had turned a corner toward greater inclusiveness. Just one year earlier, at the 1990 Oscars, Kathy Bates had shocked everyone by winning Best Actress for Rob Reiner’s Stephen King adaptation, Misery. Next came The Silence of the Lambs, the first horror film to win Best Picture and only the third film ever to sweep the Oscars’ “Big Five” categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay). Might horror/thrillers be ascending to a place of respectability?

No. As it turned out, the cultural moment that brought Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece to a sweep of the 1991 Academy Awards was merely a blip. Your next five Best Picture winners would be a staid anti-violence Western, an oozing piece of Baby Boomer nostalgia, a historical biopic set in 13th-century Scotland, and two WWII epics. The Academy had not changed—it had merely fallen in love and, as those in love often do, lost its head.

Not that The Silence of the Lambs was undeserving of its awards. Quite the contrary. But love can lead us to act on impulse in defiance of received wisdom and established tradition. Love can lead us to choices we never would have otherwise made. Fortunately, sometimes those choices end up being for the best.

Fitting for a film released on Valentine’s Day (another remarkable data point on the film’s unlikely path to Oscar dominance). But then, when else should The Silence of the Lambs have been released but on a day devoted to love? It is, after all, in many ways a love story. Not a romance, per se, but a tale of mutual-but-cautious admiration and affection between two brilliant people, one of whom happens to be a murderous cannibal.

Demme’s direction and Ted Tally’s screenplay wisely choose to leave this love story largely as subtext rather than text (one of the many missteps of the film’s sequel, Hannibal). The fondness held by Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) for Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is always suggested just beneath the surface of their interactions (including, in one startling pair of matched shots, Lecter’s caressing of Starling’s hand as he passes her a case file and Crawford’s later shaking of Starling’s hand at her FBI Academy graduation). Both men admire Starling greatly for her insight, her intelligence, her steeliness. They are at times dismissive of her, but they don’t objectify her in quite the same way the rest of the world does.

Demme emphasizes the precarious place of a woman in a male-dominated world by constantly framing Starling as diminutive in comparison with her male colleagues. Subtly but repeatedly, Starling’s role as determined underdog is underlined, enhancing the fondness the audience is inclined to have for a smart, brave woman determined to stop a mad killer. Foster’s performance hits all the right notes of nascent confidence and keen observation, not only with respect to the details of Buffalo Bill’s (Ted Levine) crimes and Lecter’s clues, but also with respect to the systematic discrimination she must navigate. When she castigates Crawford for treating her as the figurative “little lady” in front of the all-male West Virginia police force, she does so with quiet conviction and matter-of-factness rather than histrionics, not because histrionics would be disproportionate but because they would be ineffective. Starling may be only a trainee, but she is exceedingly perceptive.

Perception is key to her trade, and to the entire film. Watch The Silence of the Lambs again and you will be struck by many things: the suitably grimy cinematography of Tak Fujimoto; Howard Shore’s insistent-but-not-overbearing score; the marvelously ominous sound design, with its creaks and thrums and heavy breathing; and, of course, the terrific performances from Foster, Hopkins, Levine, and the rest of the cast (including Brooke Smith as Catherine Martin, Buffalo Bill’s final victim). (You will also be reminded that the flashbacks to Starling’s childhood do not quite work, but this is a minor quibble.) But you will be struck chiefly by how much it is a film about looking. Lecter tells Starling to “look inside yourself.” Crawford tells her to look at a victim’s body and tell him what she sees. Starling asks Lecter to turn his cutting analytical skills toward himself and toward Buffalo Bill. Look for denied requests for sexual reassignment; look within the dank, dust-covered storage unit; look, scared as you might be, inside the barn to see the spring lambs screaming.

This searching eye is brilliantly visualized by Demme’s camera. The Silence of the Lambs is overwhelmed with close-ups, many of them consisting of characters looking directly at the camera while addressing Starling. It is a uniquely unnerving approach, one that emphasizes the constant scrutiny under which Starling—as a rare female in her profession—finds herself. Everyone is constantly and relentlessly surveying their surroundings and, especially, their fellow people. That this turns out to be the key to locating Buffalo Bill is no surprise—like everyone else, he looked at what he coveted and sought it out as the first in his string of victims. As Lecter tells Starling, the key to understanding is a return to first principles, which in the case of The Silence of the Lambs—and cinema in general—is the leering male gaze.

Of all these onlookers, no one’s vision is clearer than Lecter’s. Hopkins’ performance has so seeped into the cultural conscience that it is now folkloric, but it’s hard to overstate how much his embodiment of Lecter—one of the shortest performances ever to win an Oscar for a leading role—hangs over the film, giving it its sense of urbane madness and refined dread. Of course we all remember the withering bon mots and the creepy, ramrod posture of his introduction, but Hopkins is reserved as often as he is flamboyant. Perhaps the most unsettling choice made by Hopkins, and the one most representative of his character’s unique gifts, is that in a film about the act of looking, Lecter scarcely blinks. Crawford warns Starling not to get involved in a personal tête-à-tête with the murderous doctor, but one is left with the impression that Lecter’s all-seeing, unblinking eye makes that possibility unavoidable.

What Lecter sees in Starling is also what the audience sees—a sympathetic, courageous young woman willing to battle an evil that few can contemplate. Both are persons of principles, with an appreciation for what the other has to offer. People might look at their unconventional bond and say they’re in love, but those people would be wrong. They simply see each other clearly.

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