The Silence of the Lambs

Monday, November 8th, 2010 Horrorthon Posts / Horrorthon Reviews

(1990) *****

Once again I’m going back into previous decades and watching material that, as much as any other reaction, astonishes me with how much time has passed—not just as evidenced by the old cars and clothes and haircuts and cell phones on the movie screen (that looked totally modern and up-to-date at the time; it’s really jarring) but by the evolution of attitudes and mores since the movie in question came out. A small number of movies are simultaneously of their time and ahead of their time: it’s immediately clear how important they are, but it takes a while before the culture catches up and the stuff can really be understood. The 20-year-old The Silence of the Lambs is no exception.

Few movies are top-to-bottom successes like this one—Silence was only the second movie in history to win all five major Oscars (along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 15 years previous). There was no shortage of praise for this movie (and some vociferous attacks from gay rights groups and feminist theorists; more on this below). Clarice Starling and (especially) Hannibal Lecter became icons immediately, and director Jonathan Demme (along with actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins and novelist Thomas Harris) found themselves elevated to entirely new levels of fame and renown. In retrospect, this movie was their finest hour—not the beginning of an upward trend, which is always what it looks like at the time when people do their career-best work (Citizen Kane being the most obvious, conspicuous example). I can’t think of anything that any of Silence’s major players have done since that comes anywhere near this movie.

But times have changed, as I said, and it all looks different now. What’s interesting is how the polemics have shifted. I would not have predicted this as my main reaction, watching Silence 20 years later, but as the familiar scenes unfolded and the timeless lines were uttered again, I kept noticing the ubiquitous elements that sparked so much earnest cognition and debate (both political and aesthetic), and remembering what a fuss was made over them at the time: all the men looking at FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) throughout the movie; the religious symbolism; the military imagery; the larval-insect metaphors played out in the basement lair belonging to serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine); the overcooked conversations about sexual predators and violent influences and abuse and psychology; the harsh portrait of high-level law enforcement (and its contradictory strengths and weaknesses). The Silence of the Lambs was an extremely cerebral endeavor, at least when judged by all the troubled writing and pontificating being done at the time. Unlike A Clockwork Orange or Blue Velvet or Blow-Up, The Silence of the Lambs was a cocktail-party-conversation movie that everyone liked; there was no question of its brilliance even as the finer nuances of the movie’s “positions” on violence and transgender self-loathing and small-town crime were being debated. The ready-made masterpiece was picked apart everywhere, and everyone found something else that was brilliant about it. Jodie Foster was basically covered in gold plating from this movie forward and for the next ten years every woman I knew would have some kind of swooning reaction at the mere mention of Foster and her unbelievable heroism for making The Accused and this movie.

If I sound facetious it’s not because of Foster, who’s always been pretty good—it’s more to do with the overblown praise heaped on director Jonathan Demme, who was being held up as some kind of Gandhi-figure for having pulled this off. I personally had never really liked Demme’s gimmicky movies up to that time; I hated Married to the Mob and didn’t see what was so “brilliant” about pointing the camera at lava lamps or whatever it was that was supposed to make Something Wild so delightful to the New York Times Arts & Leisure Section set. Because Silence was so good, and movies like this “can’t” be good, it had to mean that Demme had “transcended” the horror story or the police procedural and done something better. Demme himself made remarks about how he didn’t want creaking doors or cats in doorways (even though this movie has both) and tried very hard to avoid all the “bad habits” of genre filmmaking. Demme’s disdain for his own material gibed perfectly with the intellectual scaffolding around the movie, so that, in the end, Silence of the Lambs was considered a triumph of noble intentions over coarse, ugly sensationalism—out of the contemptible formulae of bad movies, we were told, an artist had crafted a complex, relevant message that we all could interpret and respond to. Silence was a “message movie,” and everybody admired the message (except Betty Friedan, who objected to the cultural elevation of a movie about the skinning of murdered girls).

Watching two decades later, all of that just seems quaint and nostalgic—the shrill voices from the past, engaging in a debate that has long since been resolved or abandoned. (Like the Murphy Brown baby! Remember that? No?) Because the movie isn’t actually a delivery system for a polemic (as it was received at the time); the messages (or, really, themes) aren’t intrusive in the slightest; they drift through the movie like tendrils of clouds in a blue sky, engaging our thinking without distracting from the story. Far from seeming cerebral, polemical or topical (as the unwatchable The Accused does), Silence is one of the most deeply felt movies I’ve ever seen. From the opening scenes in the cold woods of Quantico, Virgina, a deep chill of sadness flows from the screen, and the lonely, tragic mood never stops until the movie’s over. Even the most suspenseful moments (Lecter’s escape; Starling’s incredible night-vision confrontation with Buffalo Bill) are drenched in melancholy; every bullet is painful; every death is mourned; every lost soul is terribly missed. The agents examining the corpse of Frederica Bimmel in Tennessee are visibly moved by the mutilations her body’s received; Agent Starling can barely get through her dictation of the wound descriptions because she’s so overwhelmed with grief. Clarise’s dead father (visible in flashbacks) hangs over the movie as one of many symbols of unresolved familial love; Buffalo Bill also has a dead father (whose abuse probably started the whole cycle of violence to begin with). Foster’s performance is superb because of the raw feeling she fearlessly expresses in scene after scene, but Hopkins (in his signature role as Hannibal Lecter) steals the show not because he’s so scary (although he is, in a mannered, amped-up performance that Heath Ledger would have been proud of) but because he’s so sensitive. In a conspicuously ugly world, Lecter is the only character (except for the dead girls) with any delicacy or finesse; his bond with Starling is somewhat twisted, to be sure, but Hopkins plays it so honestly and nakedly that their climactic scene—the monologue about the lambs—has the emotional force of a neutron bomb. Foster’s got the lines, but Hopkins’ eyes steal the scene: he cares very, very deeply about all of it, while transcending it all, and Lecter’s sub-human/superhuman persona is ultimately the lens through which the movie views the laughter and tragedy of the world as memorably as it does.

So never mind the essays about the Male Gaze and the patriarchy and the velvet shackles, and never mind the critical attention paid to the usual wall-to-wall Demme tchotchkes and clever song selections and stunt casting (Chris Isaak etc.). None of that is what this movie is really about, or why it’s become a timeless classic. (It’s really just an ordinary cop thriller, as far as all that goes, with unusually interesting motivational spurs for the characters.) The majestic, operatic depth of emotion is what makes this movie unforgettable (and why it’s one of the few movies that I cry most of the way through). This grim tale of mutilation, murder and death is really about the bottomless resources in our hearts; the pain of loss and the fleeting moments of love that make it all endurable. Even Buffalo Bill, a monster if there ever was one, lies twitching on his basement floor in his night-vision goggles, dying in a pool of his own blood (as Agent Starling fumbles with her autoloader) and you can’t even hate him—you just mourn it all; the savagery and the senselessness and the horrifying repercussions when people tragically cannot connect with each other and their worlds become darker and darker. We all want the lambs to stop screaming—even Hannibal Lecter.

P.S. I like to notice the names of production companies, and I’ve always liked the fact that The Silence of the Lambs is (as the very first title card informs us) “A Strong Heart Production.” I think every main character in the story, good or evil, has a very strong heart indeed.