Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 29 October 2005
Source MGM Special Edition DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Adapted from Thomas Harris’ best-selling novel, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs creates its tensions by examining three souls in a state of flux: two outsiders yearning for transformation within insular communities that stress conformity, and an incarcerated devil at peace with his own depravity, but craving freedom from a morality he has outgrown. Similarly, Demme’s film attempts to blur the boundaries imposed upon it by genre conventions, eagerly combining elements of women’s pictures, serial killer horrors, and slasher films in order to fashion an absorbing combination of character study and procedural thriller.
Demme’s central character is FBI trainee Clarice Starling, a psychology graduate who seeks acceptance in the Behavioral-Science Division. Portrayed by Jodie Foster, we first encounter Clarice at daybreak while she runs though the training course at Quantico by herself amidst a thick fog. Starling enters the frame as a tiny speck among the dense forest composed of sinister trees and then increases in size as she jogs towards our vantage point, the strain of her efforts to conquer the course painfully evident, only to shrink once more as she speeds past us. It’s an apt entrance for a female character seeking professional achievement and struggling to assert herself in an institution dominated by men. Clarice is isolated within an imposing composition and her authority is significantly diminished by her surrounding environment. Starling is also instantly placed in a position of peril as the camera lurks behind her in study and pursuit, analogizing the viewer as Clarice’s stalker through the ominous woods. We will return to a similar viewpoint while watching her make a dire mistake during training, which then foreshadows a stressful conclusion where our female protagonist is placed in real danger.
Summoned to meet with her mentor, FBI Behavioral-Science Department Head Jack Crawford, for a special assignment he has devised for her, Clarice hurries back to Quantico. As she enters a crowded elevator, Demme illustrates Clarice’s segregation by surrounding her with intimidating older men. Constricted within the elevator as the doors close upon her, and offset against officers clad in bright golf-shirts while she wears a bland sweatshirt, Demme emphasizes her diminutive stature by drawing attention to the disparity between her petite physique and the masculine mass that towers over her. Later, Demme emphasizes Clarice’s restrictions by routinely framing her in constrictive doorways, while he accentuates her susceptibility by allowing us to watch her bare the brunt of punches during routine FBI combat training.
Once inside Crawford’s office, Clarice scans over newspaper clippings detailing the murders of a number of young women by a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, who Crawford appears to be tracking intently. Bill has randomly abducted five large white women, starving them for three days before skinning each victim, and dumping the bodies in a nearby river to remove a great deal of forensic evidence. The reasons and motivations for Bill’s actions remain a mystery as he continues to elude authorities.
As Crawford and Starling discuss her progress, Demme begins to apply his signature straight-on close-ups, allowing his actors to directly address the camera and thus the audience as well. It’s a technique Demme enjoys since his films usually concern the uncertain identity of his central characters. When applied during a conversation the technique simultaneously fuses a character’s secure point-of-view with a conflicting sense of interrogation. Unlike the tranquil parity that Ozu achieves when employing the technique, Demme’s practice produces a distressing tension. In The Silence of the Lambs, the anxiety created from the shot is partially due to Demme’s ability to carefully compel the audience to initially adopt Starling’s point-of-view before any conversation occurs. Thus, when the direct angle is returned onto Starling during this or any subsequent conversation, there is an unnerving sense that Clarice is being examined by the other party. In effect, Demme establishes our perspective of the world through Starling’s primary gaze, and then undermines that viewpoint once he reverses our perspective. Additionally, Demme makes certain that the performances of his actors and their dialogue compliment his technique. Whenever Starling is engaged in such a conversation, her counterpart is noticeably comfortable, while Foster instills Clarice with an apprehension and unease. Thus, Demme shapes his film to feel as if both Starling and the audience are under constant scrutiny, especially since his direct-address technique will certainly be applied to much greater lengths throughout the narrative.
Crawford requests that Clarice travel to Baltimore to conduct an interview with another serial killer named Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. A former-psychiatrist, Lecter killed his patients and ate them by cooking fine gourmet meals out of their flesh, frequently serving his victims to the dignitaries and social-elite at dinner parties. Lecter is considered a “pure psychopath” who you don’t want “inside your head.” Demme builds an extensive amount of suspense before revealing Lecter. In a rare kinetic sequence in what is a generally static film, Starling must descend into the basement of the archaic Baltimore State Forensic Hospital in order to arrive at the dungeon where Lecter is imprisoned. The camera begins to weave along with Clarice as she rushes down narrow corridors, descends down coiled staircases, and is constantly confined behind steel bars, disorientating the viewer to inspire trepidation. As the slimy Dr. Chilton confronts Starling with a photograph of one of Lecter’s victims that only she is privy to, the scene is bathed in a hellish red glow. Starling must then walk through a gauntlet of manic murders, and endure their vulgar harassment.
When we finally come upon Hannibal we find him to be the complete opposite of the inordinate horror we anticipated. He is rather calm and reserved, even standing motionless as Starling first peers at him. Indeed, Dr. Lecter is noticeably cultured and sophisticated, displaying refined tastes and artistic talent. Lecter’s calm temperament is a sharp contrast to his fellow inmates, and he initially appears very seductive and charming. Lecter is every bit an evolved cannibal who has advanced past regular morality, unable to be defined by conventional tests that intend to classify him as inferior.
Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Lecter has become infamous, and before it turned to parody the performance was actually quite effective. For an actor notorious for showy performances, Hopkins’ first interpretation of Hannibal appears relatively restrained. Compared to Brian Cox’s casual interpretation of Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, Hopkins’ version may not be as subtle, but his cold steely stare and deliberate speech patterns only add to Demme’s designs. Though Lecter is elegant he also remains lethal, whether during informal conversations where he taunts his counterparts with the caustic remarks, or in his vicious physical abilities that wreck bloody havoc upon his victims. Lecter may be confined to his plastic cell, but he is able to maneuver despite such constraints. Offended by Miggs’ actions against Starling, Lecter induces the psychopath to swallow his own tongue by simply whispering into the adjacent cell.
If Hopkins’ performance has lapsed into caricature, Foster’s performance seems to have faired far better over time. While Foster has rehashed the basic traits of the role throughout her career, her depiction or Clarice Starling offers an exceptional expression of feminine vulnerability and strength, as Foster conveys Starling’s fragility as well as her determination. It remains a performance that requires a believable balance few actresses have been able to achieve.
The relationship between Starling and Lecter is the focus of Demme’s film. The exchanges that occur between the doctor and the trainee are fuelled by Lecter’s knowledge of Buffalo Bill’s actual identity and Starling’s desire to prevent the serial killer from murdering Catherine Martin, the daughter of Republican Senator Ruth Martin, which will undoubtedly happen within a few days. The conversations between Lecter and Starling hold our interest due to the dynamics of their relationship. Clarice is one of the few people Hannibal actually respects, but they are far from equal. Demme conveys their inequality by allowing Lecter to dominate the frame during his close-ups, while Starling is relegated to a comparatively smaller portion of the frame when she addresses the camera. It’s a technique Demme uses quite often in order to weaken Starling’s influence against her male superiors. Given that Demme’s close-ups allow Lecter to gaze directly upon the audience, the doctor’s icy stare suggests the psychiatrist is not only dissecting Starling, but scrutinizing the viewer as well. It’s particularly unsettling given that The Silence of the Lambs was created during a time period in which psychiatry was gaining popularity within Western society, and the knowledge that psychiatrists held was viewed with concurrent wonder and fear.
Lecter’s “high-powered perception” immediately detects Starling’s insecurity regarding her class and upbringing. Certainly, there is a minor class struggle going on within Demme’s thriller, as Starling, who is contrasted to the wealth of Dr. Lecter and Catherine Martin, attempts to abandon her past small-town status and climb the ranks of the FBI. Lecter constantly draws attention to Starling’s “cheap shoes,” confronts her about the accent she has “tried so desperately to shed,” and spitefully notes that she is “not more than one generation from poor white trash.” Though his words are malicious in the moment, Lecter astutely recognizes that Starling shares similarities to Buffalo Bill’s victims. In contrast to Mann’s Manhunter, in which investigator Will Graham identifies with the killer’s vision, it is Starling’s ability to identify with Bill’s first victim, Fredericka Bimmel, which allows her to resolve the case. Unlike Catherine Martin’s presumably privileged background as a US Senator’s daughter, Clarice and Fredericka share a mutual desire to escape their meager surroundings. Thus, Clarice understands Fredericka’s need to shed the status she were born into and transform past expectations.
Physical transformation is exactly what Buffalo Bill desires since he “hates his own identity.” Perhaps the cinematic offspring of Norman Bates, Bill considers himself to be a woman, but he has been rejected for gender-reassignment surgery due to his violent tendencies that are symptoms from years of abuse. His legitimate transformation now impossible, Bill takes matters into his own perverse hands by fashioning a Frankenstein-like woman-suit made from the skin of his victims. Part of what makes Bill so frightening is that the actor playing the part, Ted Levine, is such a masculine presence, with a low rumbling voice, receding hairline, tall stature, and muscular build, yet his gestures and speech are often quite feminine. It is partly due to Demme’s smudging of gender roles and Levine’s ability to easily shift back and forth that causes the audience such apprehension around Buffalo Bill.
Gender roles obviously play a large part in Demme’s thriller, since femininity is under constant attack through the film’s narrative. No better example exists than Starling having to suffer the indignity of having semen tossed at her face by a mental patient. Starling’s quest for professional accomplishment places her in direct opposition with various inhospitable and uninformed male authority figures, requires her to hunt down a male attempting to disguise himself as a female by destroying other women, and does not involve any male companion. In fact, Starling’s closest male cohorts are polar opposites: Lecter the embodiment of evil and Crawford the beacon of decency. However, there is a notable sexual tension in both paternal relationships, enhanced by Demme’s lingering close-up visuals of hand connecting. As well, Lecter’s inquires whether Crawford has sexual fantasies about Starling, and later mentions that Starling’s frequent visits to Lecter may cause rumors that they are lovers. Starling’s ordeals also involve unwanted male attention, as she repeatedly brushes off sexual advances and is subjected to hostile gawking from male colleagues.
However, while she is uncomfortable with her beauty, Clarice uses her feminine nature to her advantage, placating Dr. Chilton in order to gain private access to Dr. Lecter, and flirting with Smithsonian nerds to obtain vital information regarding evidence she has uncovered. While she is able to identify with the victims, her male counterparts cannot, and are thus led astray. Starling is also able to assert her own judgment, as she allows an intimacy to develop between herself and Lecter, thereby flagrantly disobeying orders and deviating from procedures that her male colleagues create to shelter her from harm. Demme may position Lecter to be far more intelligent and knowledgeable, but Starling is by no means dim or ignorant. Starling’s ability to decipher Lecter’s coded anagrams and uncovering the doctor’s deceit demonstrates that she is much more intelligent, perceptive, and capable than many of her male counterparts.
The style Demme applies in The Silence of the Lambs is rather modest, and despite the film’s lurid subject matter, Demme certainly never wanders into the realms of gaudy. The majority of the film applies a fixed viewpoint, routine angles, and Demme’s trademark close-ups. Applying such rigid rules then allows the unexpected movements to be more exhilarating. As well, Demme’s color palette is drab and muted, mostly composed of brown dirt and grey stone. Still, Demme is able to inject certain stylistic flourishes every so often, including flashes of color and a flawless sound design.
Demme’s tactics are particularly accomplished in his inclusion of animal imagery and ambient animal noises. Along with Buffalo Bill’s poodle and Fredericka Bimmel’s cat, animal imagery plays a large role in The Silence of the Lambs. While Clarice is introduced by the squeaking of insects and shrill bird shrieks, Dr. Chilton defines Hannibal to be “a monster” to similar chirping. When Starling offers Lecter a false transfer to an island in return for his help in recovering Catherine Martin, it turns out to be an island with an Animal Disease Research Center. Furthermore, bird imagery attaches itself to Lecter and Starling, as Lecter terminates their first conversation by telling Starling to “fly back to school” and a stuffed owl greets Starling when she inspects a storage facility Lecter guides her towards. Once transferred, Lecter is kept in a cell that resembles a large birdcage, which he is eventually able to fly away from, leaving behind a corpse rendered to resemble a bird frozen in flight. Later, Fredericka Bimmel will be associated with birds, via wooden duck lawn ornaments, bird houses, her father’s pigeon coops, and more chirping as Starling surveys Fredericka’s bedroom. It is an apt image since all three characters long for independence and seek to leave their nest.
A more prominent animal image is the Death’s-Head Moth, serving as a distinctive representation of the transformation both Starling a Buffalo Bill crave. Interestingly, Bill has chosen the moth, which is naturally thought of as the grotesque relative to the attractive butterfly. Starling is first to spot the caterpillar cocoon that Bill has deposited in his victims’ throats, signaling to the authorities that Bill wishes to transform himself into his own conception of a beauty—a makeover he prepares for in his basement as he tries on makeup, tucks his genitals between his legs, and figuratively spreads his wings by raising his arms entangled in colorful cloth. We will also later spot a butterfly ornament when daylight intrudes upon Bill’s lair. However extreme it appears, it’s an alteration that Starling relates to, having made every effort to shed her white-trash ancestry for law-enforcement respect. Afterwards, while snooping around the Bimmel home, Clarice finds photographs of Fredericka bashfully posing in her underwear, illustrating how Bimmel was almost ashamed of her body. Thus it isn’t surprising to find butterfly wallpaper adorning Fredericka’s sewing room, conveying her own need to alter herself.
The film’s most obvious animal imagery is mentioned during a memory Clarice recalls to Lecter. Other than in Lecter’s sketches, Demme wisely avoids showing the lambs that haunt Clarice. Demme instead uses the sounds of howling winds as a catalyst to allow viewers to imagine the slaughter of lambs that Starling describes. The lambs serve as an obvious symbol of innocence since Starling describes their screams to sound like children’s voices, but they are also a representation of destroyed potential given that they are butchered at such a young age. It thus becomes apparent that Clarice envisions Bill’s victims to be akin to the lambs she was unable to save as a child. Starling is disturbed by the fact that these women will not be allowed to mature, instead meeting their doom at the hands of a man who does not respect their right to live and shears their skin to cloak himself as one would with sheep’s wool.
Moments after Clarice finishes recounting her childhood trauma, Demme switches his film from high-brow psychological study into a grisly horror exhibition. Two sequences allow Demme to create the terror he has only hinted at thus far. The first is Lecter’s elaborate escape from his birdcage, which evokes the sinister exploitation of a slasher film, and vibrates between Lecter’s classical accompaniment and Howard Shore’s menacing score. Demme sets up his brutality by first shooting Lecter from above at high angles while we witness his plan unfold. After a chaotic attack on the officers who deliver his dinner (lamb chops, extra rare), Demme shoots Lecter from below, adopting Lieutenant Boyle’s point-of-view as Lecter proceeds to viciously beat the officer — and in effect the viewer — with a nightstick. Once the officers downstairs watch the bizarre movements of an elevator and hear gunshots fired, we follow the squad as they storm the room Lecter is held in. Through flickering light, Demme reveals the repulsive vision of one of the guards hanging from the cage. Gutted and crucified by Lecter, he also resembles a butterfly, and we soon grasp that this appalling sight serves as Lecter’s distraction. While SWAT scurries around to track Lecter down, we realize he actually lies on the floor wearing the face of Sergeant Pembry awaiting an ambulance to whisk him away.
In the film’s climactic confrontation between Clarice and Buffalo Bill, Demme returns to a few stylized tactics he applied earlier in his film, but twists them slightly to heighten the sense of distress. First, he deliberately deceives the viewer through clever cross-cutting between an FBI team preparing to storm a house in Calumet City, Illinois, and an absolutely livid Bill, thrashing through his basement after having discovered Catherine has captured his precious poodle at the bottom of the well. It turns out the FBI has missed its mark and has left Clarice alone to face the killer.
Once again we begin by adopting Clarice’s point-of-view as she addresses “Bill.” As Clarice becomes trapped in the house the sound of birds returns, and the appearance of a moth poised on spools of thread reveals Bill’s identity. However, once we enter the basement that appears designed as a gothic labyrinth, the atmosphere becomes hysterical. Demme subjects us to dark shadows and an onslaught of noises, including a dog’s yelps, Catherine’s screams, the flutter of moths’ wings, and psychedelic music that grows from a murmur to an assault. Interestingly Catherine and Clarice turn increasingly aggressive to one another, as Catherine alternates between misogynistic language and shrieks of helplessness. Finally, Demme momentarily eliminates all light, thus leaving Starling and the viewer in total darkness. We return only to find that Demme has forced the viewer to adopt Bill’s point-of-view, casting his images in the creepy green of night-vision goggles and perhaps also serves to exhibit Bill’s envious gaze of Starling, who appears to be in the midst of the type of grand transformation that Bill so desperately seeks for himself. Figuratively, it’s not that Bill is able to see what Clarice cannot, but that Bill views the world differently. It is a troubling position for an audience who has invested so much in Clarice’s quest thus far. The viewer must once again stalk Clarice while she is left completely exposed to Bill’s dangerous grasp. As Bill prepares to execute her by squeezing the trigger, Clarice swings around to face her stalker and a barrage of gunfire ensues. In these final moments Demme reprimands the audience for watching countless other cinematic scenarios where women are slaughtered, as Clarice’s gunfire is aimed squarely at the audience who watches passively while she is threatened.
Since its initial release in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs has not suffered the same critical recoil that so many subsequent Oscar winners have been treated to, but its status has certainly been weakened to some extent. Amusingly, Demme’s film has been marginalized in comparison to Michael Mann’s Manhunter, which seems to have only grown in esteem. It’s a shift that is perhaps due to increasing popularity of Mann’s work and the mediocre results of Demme’s subsequent projects. It may also be due to tendency within film criticism to ignore works that have already garnered suitable acclaim, so that we may turn our attention to those films that were initially overlooked. However, in the fifteen years that have past since it swept the Oscars, The Silence of the Lambs remains a rare instance of a contemporary studio product that continues to exhibit itself as an expertly crafted film in which the artistic merits of its individual components create an unexpected and unique synergy. It’s also a fitting lesson that realizing one’s potential can often be a terrifying process.