The Silence of the Lambs

The Nature of Fear

an essay by: Witney Seibold


If the function of fright films is to help us exorcize our fears, then Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs” is one of the best fright films there is. The universal human fears on display here are diverse and unsettling. In addition to the usual visceral gore/fright-film fare of being eaten alive by another person, being kidnapped and starved at the bottom of a well, and having your body mutilated by your killer, there are also the subtle social fears of being intellectually belittled, of being given a job you know you are not yet qualified for, of failure in your job, of being identified as a hick in a big city, and of being a young woman in a largely male world. Or, in one memorable shot, being a young woman in a largely male elevator.

If the function of fright films is to offer a simple distracting thrill, then “The Silence of the Lambs” works on that level as well. But it is a film that, while containing its share of gore, and focusing on not one, but two serial killers – one who will take your skin for a suit, another who will either eat you, or talk you into swallowing your own tongue – is not a film expressly about the gore. It is a film about the complex relationships that develop between intellectual minds. Yet, somehow, it remains taut and thrilling and genuinely terrifying.


Most so-called “thrillers” cave into trashy, overly-violent, pulp situations; gore-fests intended not to engage us, but to repel us and make us squirm in giddy horrific discomfort. In fact, “The Silence of the Lambs” was even granted a sequel in 2001 called “Hannibal,” directed by Ridley Scott, which featured the following: a man who had personally removed his own face, a pack of wild pigs being trained to eat human flesh, and, in the glorious finale, a scene of Ray Liotta eating his own brains. Whee. These scenarios may sound like fun to the average gore-hound, but the film was not able to capably elevate them above average fall-season horror schlock. “The Silence of the Lambs” features similarly horrific situations: a human head in a jar, a dead body with skin missing, a cocoon lodged in a person’s throat, a man killed an flayed and arranged like an angel on a cage, and Hannibal Lecter wearing another man’s face over his own. Pulpy, yes. And yet Jonathan Demme’s thriller seems less like pulp, and more like a genuine human drama. His direction, as well as an excellent screenplay by Ted Talley (from the novel by Thomas Harris), however, manage to turn a blood-soaked crime cheapie (in fact, the novel is a usual, if particularly well-written, potboiler) into one of the most riveting crime dramas of the last 15 years.


What have they done to make it so good? Well, the score is certainly part of it. Rather than screeching strings and the usual musical stings, the score is quiet and brooding. It cuts out at the right moments, making sure the characters create their own tension. In fact, the tensest scene in the film, in which Starling is trapped in the dark while her pursuer watches on with creepy green-tinted night-vision goggles, there is no sound at all, except for breathing, gasping, and a high pitched electronic whine. Occasionally a dog barks in the background, and during the entire finally, we here one of Gumb’s victims screaming from below. Beautiful, quiet, dark and evocative.


Certainly the photography has something to do with it. It’s never colorful, this film, and never bright. The only bright lights come from bright bare lamps in dark places, or from those creepy night-vision goggles. But then, most films of this ilk feature dark and grey photography (I recently saw the haunted house film “The Changeling” which used shadow and light in a similar way).


But more than technical elements like the score and the photography, this film is hinged strongly on the amazing performances of the two leads, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, and the resulting richness of their two characters Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Clarice Starling


Clarice is riddled with fear. To the rest of the world, she is a respectable young woman who is studying hard, and physically training herself to be an FBI agent. She is hard-nosed and determined. She may be a small woman, but she is clawing her way out of the sexism of her surroundings to be in a position of command. But she is constantly, deathly afraid of being considered a “rube.” She is strong and resolute. The instant she meets with Hannibal Lecter, however, he sees through her immediately.


It’s hard enough to be a young woman in the FBI, but a
West Virginia, poor-white-trash, coal-miner’s-daughter would have no credibility in any sort of cosmopolitan setting, including any form of law enforcement. She must accomplish what she has set out to do, because she knows that failure would mean a return to her stick roots, and proof that a rube can never go to town. Because of her conversations with Lecter, and because of a few flashbacks, we see her determination, and her fear of being “found out.”


Being discovered as a rube is not even her primary fear, though. She has a larger demon to face. Because she is a woman, people flirt with her, people leer at her, people expect little of her. She has to ask people twice to leave a body examination (“Go on, now.”). A wild serial killer even hisses curse words at her, by the mere virtue that she is female. Clarice is constantly battling subtle waves of sexism that seem to drift in the air about her. Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), at one point tries to explain why he belittled her, but we can’t be too sure if he was apologizing sincerely, or trying to appease her. Clarice, of course, does not stand for it (“It matters.”), and is at least able to say so to her boss.


In fact, this is a film that is profoundly about sexism and gender roles. We have a young woman, an attractive one, battling her boss, groups of large men, and demented wackos. We also have a male serial killer in Buffalo Bill, who is desperately trying to reassign his own gender by making a woman suit out of real women. Does he want to be a woman, or is he systematically punishing them? Ah, the beautiful ambivalence of the psychopathic mind. He is a woman-hater writ large.

It’s interesting to ponder that all the men and male figures in Clarice’s life (with perhaps the bold exception of Hannibal Lecter), be they peers, fellow FBI men, harmless entomologists, her own boss, a lecherous Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), or the mad Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), are all the same. They all have a male gene that instinctively objectifies women. I’m willing to bet that Clarice has been facing this sort of subtle, almost invisible misogyny her whole life from every male she has ever encountered. So she knows how to deal with a woman-hater, and is simultaneous always in fear of the men around her. It’s a level of vulnerability I, a white male, cannot even begin to ponder. She is indeed put in situations of danger previously un-encountered (human heads, etc.), which frighten her. But, as she herself admits at one point in the film, the visceral danger makes her feel “scared, then exhilarated.” Her experience with the male world at large is a deeper fear (and, incidentally, gives her all the more reason to prove herself), and the film makes us experience that fear. I felt this theme of misogyny when I saw “The Silence of the Lambs” for the first time at age 14. Even back then, I was guilty of staring at females in a lecherous, and likely uncomfortable-for-them manner. I am still guilty of doing it from time to time. The film lets us see the lechery from the viewee’s perspective.

Which pushes the film into a weird relationship with its audience. If films are about voyeurism, what if we are made to feel guilty for being a voyeur?

(Know that, even though the film features several murders of women, it is not in itself sexist. It is about sexism. There’s a difference. Disney’s “The Song of the South” is racist. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is about racism.)

Jodie Foster is nothing short of fantastic in giving us all these fears, but without ever seeming out-of-control, or wimpy, or like a damsel-in-distress. It is a truly great performance. I can think of few other actresses who could pull this off. Tough, resolute, determined, and constantly struggling to rise above the mire of fears that hang about us all. Julianne Moore took over the role of Clarice Starling in the previously mentioned “
Hannibal,” and she, while a wonderful actress in her own right, did not carry the same sort of heft that Jodie Foster brought to the role. I guess that’s the mark of a good actor, being able to take a role, and make it your own. Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Speaking of making roles one’s own, few performances have become so iconic so quickly, than Anthony Hopkins in the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Indeed Hannibal Lecter had been played in a film before. Brian Cox (playing “Lektor”) played the role adroitly in Michael Mann’s film “Manhunter,” based on Harris’ novel Red Dragon. But it’s Anthony Hopkins who took the role, and made it his. In fact, when it came time for studio to make another “Red Dragon” film, Anthony Hopkins was cast as
Hannibal again. Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc. Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Clint Eastwood as “Blondie.” Marlon Brando as the Godfather.  We can’t imagine any other actors in these roles. Anothy Hopkins managed to do that with Hannibal Lecter. It is one of the great performances of cinema.

Lecter is not a man beset by fear. Lecter is not a man prone to striving, struggling or indecision. Lecter is aloof, belittling, intellectual, almost ethereal. When we first see him, he is standing upright in the middle of his cell. Not prowling like a predator, nor slumped over like a beastman. Merely at home. He is relaxed. As if he would be at home anywhere. There’s something about the way he stands there that unnerves us. Here is a man whom we know to be a killer and a cannibal. A man who just recently mutilated one of the prison nurses and ate her tongue. A man who has toyed with every FBI agent who comes to see him. But all we see in that single moment is a ball of relaxed and unpredictable calm. The juxtaposition is not incongruous, rather it’s frightening.

So we’re scared of Lecter. His animal ability to identify Claire’s perfume is almost supernatural. But we almost immediately like him. We are drawn to him. We are drawn to his intelligence, his instinctive (and sociopathic) dismay for any sort of authority. And his regard for Clarice. We like that he likes her. Lecter seems to be drawn to her, not only because she is a young vulnerable woman and potential toy (as seems the case at the very outset), but a mixture her naïveté, sincerity, and willingness to stand up to even him, earns her a smattering of regard. A regard which grows into a real sort of respect by the film’s end. “People will say we’re in love,” Lecter intones at one point.

We also like him because his murderous behavior is part of him, and not a personality obstacle. Hannibal Lecter is a killer. Like Dracula or Norman Bates, he is sympathetic because his murders are so strongly hardwired into his system. The guy just can’t help himself. In fact, beyond his crimes, he seems like an erudite and well-read man. He won’t stand for petty people, and will not be mocked. His very manner demands, and commands, respect.

Maybe that’s another reason he like Clarice. She doesn’t let her fear immediately show through, she doesn’t talk down to him, and doesn’t dismiss him. She does need his assistance is apprehending Buffalo Bill, but sees him as more than the sum of his crimes. She never stops calling him “Dr. Lecter.” Perhaps those subtle gestures of respect endear her to him. And what can a man locked behind several barred doors, his freedom long since stripped, and his dignity constantly at odds from his smarmy warden, really want? Why, respect.

We don’t know who
Hannibal is beyond his crimes, and the cold, raw intelligence we see on the screen. We get no sense of his past, we don’t get any clues as to what made him the way he is. And frankly, we don’t want them. If we had some explanation behind his character, it would cheapen him. We would be robbed of the sheer thrill of merely watching him. Like Iago, he is an explanation-less and inexcusable criminal, through-and-through. This kind of character is not only dramatically alluring (who doesn’t love a good villain?), but, in an odd way, easy to accept. Once we know that a person cannot be talked out of doing the atrocities they are pondering, we can at least nail them. As much as we fear Hannibal Lecter, we have him nailed almost immediately. We fear him, we hate his crimes, and we can’t take our eyes off him. And, unlike Iago, we don’t see him as a villain. A monster, perhaps, but not a villain.


By the time Lecter finally gets the screaming lambs story out of Clarice, we understand that he must know more about her, and she must tell him. Their relationship has become more trusting and open (although not in a warm way) than any other in the film. Here is a man who is fear personified, and we respect him, and understand the need for the truth to be told after so many mind games and deals and barters.


Would I want to meet Hannibal Lecter? Well, perhaps not. I don’t want him to belittle me, then kill me and eat me. But seeing Clarice face off against him allows me to see him in action. 

“The Silence of the Lambs” was a massively popular film, and is one of only three films to win all of “the big five” Academy Awards: Picture, director, screenplay, actor, and actress. (“It Happened One Night,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” being the other two). People recognized the brilliance of the two leads right away, and were moved by the wonder/horror of it all. In the ensuing 15 years, the film has been called a horror film sometimes, and Hannibal Lecter has been lumped together with Freddy Krueger and Jason, and other slasher villains of the 1980s horror franchises. This is not correct. Freddy and Jason are terrifying to be sure, but are caricatures. They are the pulp that “The Silence of the Lambs” was transcending (Don’t misunderstand, I like me some good pulp. But “Lambs” is not in the same school as they).

Notice at the beginning of this essay, I did not refer to “The Silence of the Lambs” as a “horror” film, but a “fright” film. It is a film that deals with fear, but not because of its gore. It’s a film that deals with the psychology of killers, and not the mechanics of killing. In horror films, people have nightmares of monsters and blood and rubber monsters chasing them down corridors. In “The Silence of the Lambs,” people have everyday nightmares of being embarrassed, of failing, of facing intimidation. We feel the fears, we live the fears, and, at the same time, get to know two people with a very unique relationship.

Sympathy, fear, monsters, crime, brilliance, gore. It’s why we go to the movies.  

Published in: on May 11, 2007 at 7:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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