I was a very young boy when I first saw The Silence of the Lambs. Not the movie itself, but rather its cover.
I was in an old VHS rental-shop. Much of my childhood had been spent in these fabled institutions of yore, where after school or on weekends my family and I would peruse the shelves, looking for the night’s entertainment—or oftentimes, for my parents, a distraction to hold my brother and I’s attention.
Something of a fanatic, I shied away from the new releases, preferring to check out a cycle of the same tapes over and over again. My favorites were action movies, which, with any intelligent design to their categorization, are always near to the crime-thrillers. All it would take for my first introduction to Silence was just one, simple, wrong turn.
I was terrified when I first saw that cover. With a movie that popular, store copies would come as triplets. Clone after clone after clone, six sets of Jodie Foster’s eyes did stare back at me, and even with my inexperienced child-brain I could intuit that I was meant to fear this movie—the unnatural red of the irises, the deathly, morgue-blue color of her skin, and a missing mouth, covered or maybe even stitched shut by a monstrous mouth. Oh yes, I was afraid.
And I think back to that moment, and I laugh.
Now, The Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite movies ever. Doing well to have conquered my fear of it, I can say with confidence that it is also, in spite of its subject matter, one of the greatest feminist films of all time, filled with intriguing characters, poetic filmmaking, and irony.
This Valentine’s Day will mark the 30th anniversary of the film’s nationwide release. To celebrate, I’d like to talk a little bit about it—why I think it’s so good, the impact and significance I think it’s had, the implications of its reception, as well as the consequences and discussion surrounding some of its more controversial topics. Because, as part of the film’s magic, it is still plenty relevant after 30 years. Spoilers, of course, below:
The Silence of the Lambs is the story of Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), an FBI trainee who is recruited by Special Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the Behavioral Science Unit to provide psychiatrist-turned-serial killer Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) with a questionnaire, the answers to which might provide the FBI with enough insight to capture the rampaging “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), a new killer whose MO is to capture overweight women, starve them, and, after killing them, flay off their skin.
We open on Clarice, a reserved, mousey little woman in a guns-and-robbers-world of men, quite literally in the midst of an uphill struggle as she pounds her way through a Quantico training course, an undoubtedly apt metaphor for her character’s arc and progression.
Throughout the film, we see how Clarice’s journey into this investigation is defined by her womanhood: she is hit on by multiple professionals she is referred to, she is harassed with language that makes specific reference to her female anatomy, and she is even kept out of key conversations out of fear that their subject matter might offend her more feminine senses.
Then, of course, there are the eyes: the several, wandering eyes of men that can be seen to fall upon Clarice as she goes about her business all throughout the film. Often when captured, these male gazes are not the camera’s focus, reinforcing the casual, in-passing nature of the judgment, doubt, and mental undressing that Clarice must overcome to get the job done and save the day. It was an honest statement on the environments of working women upon release, though it might be comparatively tepid to anything that might try to decry rape culture in the era of #MeToo.
Clarice is not to be daunted, though, and, in fact, several of the film’s female characters are the very spirit of perseverance. This is no doubt a surprising observation to be found in a story whose one of many subjects is the torment and brutalization of women.
Senator Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), the mother of Bill’s next planned victim Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), is shown to be a practical political manipulator, who will even consider bargaining with Lecter in exchange for information that could help to find her daughter. When Lecter declines to cooperate, instead choosing to toy with the senator, Ruth refuses to be a punching-bag for Hannibal’s games. Catherine, while captured, does not totally wallow in her anguish, either—she instead displays incredible resourcefulness in her scheme to trap Bill’s dog “Precious,” in an attempt to make her own dark bargain for her freedom.
Even a victim previous to Catherine (her resultant murder an exemplar of male triumph over female weakness), did not go out without a fight. Deep down in the basement-well where Bill has trapped her, Catherine is horrified to find the bloody scratches and fingernails of her predecessor clawed into the brick and mortar. It’s a dark image, and perhaps even frustrating in its terror, but it is not without the message that women can be fighters, too.
While this all could convince audiences that women are capable agents of destiny, the men in the picture just aren’t buying it. Most are creepy, dismissive, or just plain rude. Even Jack Crawford, Clarice’s mentor, and at first glance the only ostensibly decent man among the monsters, is not without his ignorance. He’s the one who keeps Clarice out of a meeting with a sheriff and, in what may be the greatest example of mansplaining in cinema history, unwittingly lures her into Bill’s lair alone.
In an interview with Jim Ferguson, Crawford’s actor Scott Glenn described his character as “essentially decent,” who views his relationship with Clarice as one between teacher and student. Of note is that essentially decent is not the same as being entirely decent, and that a teacher-student dynamic is one definitively based in inequality. Though not intrinsically a bigoted difference in power, it is still a part of Crawford’s character that he views himself as superior to Clarice.
I especially love the last scene between them. Clarice has emerged from this sordid affair a bona fide agent, and Crawford corners her for congratulations at an afterparty. Though Glenn believes that any romantic feelings between the two was “played underneath,” there’s something expectant in Crawford’s eyes. A quick cut dashes any hopes of a big kiss, as Clarice extends her hand to Crawford and they shake—not as subordinate and superior, but as equals.
So then, with dreadfully hilarious irony, maybe it is only in Hannibal, a murderous psychopath, that Clarice can find the closest thing to a true gentleman among the male cast. Though he may insult Clarice’s fashion choices, Lecter is learned, and expresses interest in archetypically gentlemanly things, like fine-dining and the architecture of foreign cities. He speaks of courtesy, expects it from Clarice, and offers it in kind, going so far as to provide her with a towel to dry off from the rain.
Even Hannibal and Clarice’s peculiar “quid pro quo” demonstrates Lecter’s good manners. When Clarice asks for more information that could lead to Bill’s identification, all that Hannibal requests for in return is that Clarice tell him about her childhood. In his own dark and twisted way, Hannibal wants to get to know her—and he asks questions! Though this really was more just Hannibal’s way of manipulating Clarice, the idea is clear, and when Lecter does come to escape from his confinement, he’s got Clarice convinced that she will not be his target: “he would consider it rude.”
If one were to describe Clarice as “intrigued” by Hannibal, then it would only be fair to describe audiences as totally enamored. Though only in the film for about 16 minutes, Hopkins’ performance received extraordinary praise and response, resulting in an Academy Award for Best Actor, a top honor he shared with Foster, who won Best Actress—and for her much lengthier effort, mind you.
Hannibal has had a lasting legacy with the public. In a 2003 list of the best film characters ever to grace the screen, the American Film Institute named Lecter as he appeared in The Silence of the Lambs as the greatest movie villain of all time. Why exactly such a horrible man is so beloved may have to do with another of his accolades—placing seventh on Bravo’s The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, is our dear doctor’s infamous break from imprisonment.
For much of the film, we see Hannibal as a man restricted. He’s wrapped up in straits, his mouth muzzled, either being carted around, or placed behind a glass wall, or even a literal cage. In some regard, Hannibal is treated less like a man, and more like an object—an oftentimes female experience.
Senator Martin refers to Lecter as a “thing,” and his nemesis Doctor Chilton (Anthony Heald) speaks of Hannibal with the same fascination one would a zoo animal, or a prize trophy. “I am not a turn-key!” hisses Chilton, his possessiveness over Lecter on full display when Clarice refuses Chilton’s demands to sit in on her meetings with him. It’s an incredibly clever line, my favorite in all of Ted Tally’s screenplay, because if not for Chilton’s carelessness, Hannibal could not have escaped.
And what a glorious escape it is. The score blasts with power. With free hands, Hannibal brutalizes his jailers with a delicate finesse, basking in his triumph. He is no longer an object, but an agent. No longer Hannibal the thing to be wondered at, but Hannibal as the man, as the person, that he truly is. What he has been denied has come to ruin others. What could very well have been the ultimate statement on female empowerment, has, in yet another example of patriarchy’s accidental incidence, been told as the story of a man.
Now, suddenly, the film is no longer Clarice’s, but Hannibal’s, and having Lecter hog the most cinematic sequence all for himself is not without consequences. In the heroic counterpart to that 2003 AFI list I mentioned earlier, rather than being placed at number one, Clarice is instead ranked the sixth greatest film hero of all time. And on his side, Hannibal shares the top 10 with five villainesses (six if you count Regan McNeil as possessed by Pazuzu), while Clarice can only claim six female cohorts out of the entire 50 heroes—one of whom is Lassie.
I think that really is too bad because, in spite of my analysis, Hannibal’s escape is thematically insufficient and does little for the plot as a whole. What could perhaps be the strongest contributor to our favor of Doctor Lecter, is in fact the weakest point in the movie. We love Hannibal, but maybe for the wrong reasons.
I’m especially disappointed for Foster, because (for as good as Hopkins is as Lecter), Jodie is absolutely brilliant as Clarice. Few actresses could make a character so soft-spoken so compelling, and in conjunction with Jonathan Demme’s direction, she gives life to Ted Tally’s tale of transformation, in often charmingly subtle ways (she does, after all, eventually come to “check those corners”).
Even fewer actresses could meet the physical requirements that the role demands. Not that Clarice is particularly acrobatic or athletic, but standing at only 5 feet 3 inches, Foster was perfect casting to embody the challenge of women in a world of (big) men. Speaking in a recent Actors on Actors interview she conducted with Hopkins, Foster said that Clarice, in acting as the hero of the story, was “trying to overcome the failure of the body [she] was born in.”
It’s an insightful perspective, especially when considering the film’s most controversial aspect: the character of Buffalo Bill.
Born Jame Gumb, Buffalo Bill is depicted as a demented and confused individual. Scarred after years of abuse, Gumb grows to hate who he is and, from the perspective of the film, is convinced that he is a transsexual. When Gumb is denied reassignment surgery his psychosis deepens, and he skins his victims in hopes of making a “woman suit” for himself.
Since the film’s release, Bill’s character has been a point of contention and ire among the LGBT community, who view the villain as a harmful caricature of a vulnerable minority group, a point that director Demme would believe to be a “misinterpretation,” and a “disservice to gay people.”
Trying to set the record straight that Bill represents only himself and is not a catch-all takedown of the non-heteronormative, there are key elements of the film that maintain this plausible deniability. Dancing before the mirror in a scalped-wig, Bill asks: “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.” This suggests that all Bill would desire out of the female experience is to be desired. His view of women is of one who understands them as objects, not as fully formed individuals with lives far beyond what they do in the bedroom.
And then, there is the famous line:
“Our Billy hates his own identity,” Lecter assesses, “and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage, more terrifying.”
To Lecter’s credit, he is halfway right. Jame simply hating himself is not enough for him to be transgender or transsexual, and despising the body you were born with does not always define those life experiences, and certainly not in totality.
But, even still, the script slips into (incidental) transphobia, as Hannibal suggests that Bill is more savage and more terrifying, implying that trans people are either to begin with. And, if Buffalo Bill isn’t actually a woman in a man’s body and in fact he’s just a sad and confused individual, then who is to say that all trans people aren’t just like him? Sad and confused? That’s a common belief among bigots, and The Silence of the Lambs does wonders to reinforce the idea, whether it means to or not.
So, maybe Silence is not a perfect film. The third act is certainly a bit bungled: it’s heavy on plot and light on theme, and there are a few missing story beats that leave gaping holes in their wake (as I understand it due to them being edited out of the final cut).
Even putting aside the technical issues, there are certain questionable elements if considered with a modern perspective: the film accidentally targets the LGBT, had us fall deeper in love with its murderous male villain than its heroine, and in its story of under 2 hours it couldn’t find a place for more intersectional topics (this essay, you may have noticed, speaks largely on a binary and does not delve into race).
But that doesn’t mean that 30 years ago it was any less groundbreaking, any less of a punch-up in a long fight for women and their stories to be taken seriously.
And that’s the thing about milestones: whether its overcoming your fears of a silly movie cover, or expanding your artistic subjects to be far more inclusive, you shouldn’t look back at them with disdain.
You should revisit them, look forward, and smile at how far you have come.