The Silence of the Lambs ★★★★½

There's this question I pose to myself sometimes when I'm trying to gauge a movie's quality: "How much is happening in this movie at any given second?" On how many levels is the movie operating? Does it harness every component of filmmaking, or are some areas marred by neglect or indifference? (This isn't exactly a litmus test, I should add; just a tool to get myself thinking.) I thought about this question periodically while rewatching The Silence of the Lambs, because it's impeccably made, and tends to do about half a dozen things at once. At its most basic, it's a serial killer-tracking FBI procedural. It's pulpy, gory, and tense. But at the same time it's

(1) a (liberal) feminist psychodrama about Clarice bluffing and eventually suffering her way into a position of authority as an enforcer of American law. Demme's soul-penetrating close-ups get us deep into Jodie Foster's head, her trembling eyes, her cracking voice. The sexism she experiences often takes place without the film calling much attention to it; it's pervasive, running parallel to the trials of Catherine Martin and her mother. (Sen. Martin is an elected federal official yet even she isn't free from Hannibal cracking wise about her nipples in public.)

(2) a geometrical breakdown of power and vulnerability within relationships. This is, of course, tangled up with (1), since gender dynamics predetermine a lot about who's exposed vs. who's in control. But even in the masculine triangle formed by Hannibal, Dr. Chilton, and Jack Crawford, there's this constant jockeying to get on top. Anthony Hopkins levies power through his eyes and often deigns not to even glance at Anthony Heald's imperious Chilton. It's a small but piercing diss. (I'd forgotten the overwhelming stillness of Hopkins' performance—that of a man who knows his body language is a weapon. Chilton's remark about how "his pulse never got above 85" is borne out by the interview that follows.)

(3) a map of certain abysmal spaces. Silence is like a horror movie travelogue, tagging along with Clarice as her mettle is tested by a string of stygian tours. The bowels of the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital, the world's scariest storage unit, Hannibal's impromptu cage in Memphis, then finally the monster's lair: they're like chambers in a haunted house that spans several states. Before this viewing, I'd never noticed how the film's city-to-city jumps cover a fairly narrow range of the Eastern Seaboard, pushing gently into the Midwest, which means exterior shots tend to share the same features: cloudy skies, naked trees, drab brick buildings. It's a low-to-the-ground, decidedly American story, which is part of the reason the continental Hannibal feels like such an alien within it.

So this is a taut thriller, but if you scratch its surface you'll strike a whole thematic lode waiting underneath. While I'm writing about this film's ideas, by the way, I suppose I'd be remiss not to mention its trans-coded bogeyman, Buffalo Bill. Frankly, though, I'm not totally sure what to say, which is a failing on my part especially since Bill's crimes and persona lie right at the film's dark heart. It's disquieting, obviously, to see gender "deviance" equated with dangerous mental illness yet again. More disquieting still is the "Goodbye Horses" scene, shot with a sickening grandeur from the perspective of Bill's own camcorder. It's prefaced by intimate close-ups of Bill's anatomy, which are uncomfortable for any viewer but especially when you can see yourself being faintly represented within this monster. I don't know where exactly Silence leads me but it's somewhere deep and damp, and I know I'll be visiting there again before too long.

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