It’s not the cinematic hole in one its reputation suggests, but The Silence of The Lambs set the bar higher for serial killer fiction on screen.
While arguably not his best film, 1991’s The Silence of The Lambs is Jonathan Demme’s most successful and most celebrated work. Box office returns and Oscars aside, it’s the kind of movie that’s easy to overlook as art because of how much it’s become part of the pop cultural vernacular. But revisiting the film in 2017, it’s astonishing how much of a throwback this expertly realized thriller feels. It’s no shock that, since this film, the only other successful adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter character was made for television. Sadly, genre films with this kind of pedigree are seldom made for mature audiences anymore.
The film follows Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), an FBI trainee plucked from the academy by her mentor Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to interview incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a psychiatrist turned cannibal. Crawford thinks Lecter can help the bureau catch Buffalo Bill, a killer who kidnaps, kills and skins women, leaving butterflies in their mouths. The game of cat and mouse between young Clarice and master manipulator Lecter runs parallel to the hunt for Bill, a bifurcated approach to the serial killer narrative central to novelist Thomas Harris’ other Lecter outing, Red Dragon and later, Bryan Fuller’s exceptional television series Hannibal.
While that underrated show took a phantasmagoric approach to the source material, Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally transform the purple prose of Harris’ novel and reframe it as a deliberate exercise in suspense and terror. Where Harris’ writing is strongest when expounding on his characters’ interior worlds, this adaptation utilizes strong visual storytelling and potent editing to suggest and imply what is can be plainly stated on paper. The result is a film that moves at a thriller’s pace, yet with the patience and dread of a slower horror film. It is at once restrained and monstrous, delicate and grotesque, not unlike its iconic lead figure.
As scripted (and further refined in the editing room), Lambs has the inevitable propulsion of a police procedural, with its tight plotting and shrewd narrative economy. But what sets it apart from the decades of network TV whodunit imitators it inspired is the power imbued in small details. Demme trusts his lead actors to do so much with looks, pauses and reactions that he doesn’t have to waste precious screen time to get across the richness of their adversarial relationship. The sparse information is designed to keep the viewer always a step behind, forcing the audience to constantly engage and question information much as Clarice does. The film has been criticized for using this technique to mask some of the film’s more questionable turns and plot points, but it dovetails perfectly with Demme’s use of perspective.
Much of the film places us inside Clarice’s POV, leveraging Demme’s gift for framing powerful close-ups to create a pervasive environment of interrogation. On the macro level, this gives every interaction between Clarice and Lecter an added weight as their back and forth proves to be the most beguiling and effective elements of the film. But outside of that relationship, seeing things through her eyes, whether staring down offices in West Virginia or walking down the prisoners’ row to meet with Lecter, allows us to understand the world Clarice navigates and her fledgling place in it. Foster’s performance, a turn all the more formidable for the unique way she displaces vulnerability, does much of the heavy lifting, but all those shots where the camera becomes a simulacrum of her eyes sell it further.
The chief problem with the film, especially watching it today, is with the main thrust of the narrative, namely the transphobic tenor of Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), the not-exactly-transsexual killer they call Buffalo Bill. Unlike The Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon (and Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptation Manhunter), who’s given a complexity and space to be explored on par with Lecter and that film’s detective, Will Graham, Gumb feels like a lazy sketch. The potential is there to truly explore ideas of identity and dysmorphia or to lend Gumb the wider berth the series’ two other primary killers are afforded. Instead Buffalo Bill feels like an also ran, the kind of boogeyman who’d absolutely suffice at the 33-minute mark of an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit but is insulting and unbecoming a villain for a film that’s otherwise so smart.
It’s not the cinematic hole in one its reputation suggests, but The Silence of The Lambs set the bar higher for serial killer fiction on screen. Perhaps more importantly, criticism from the LGBTQ community of the film’s latent transphobia affected the way Demme considered representation of marginalized groups in cinema, which informed his next film, Philadelphia.