An Appreciation – The Silence of the Lambs
“It places the lotion in the basket.” – Buffalo Bill
I once took a course in college named “Murder: The Psychology of The Serial Killer.” In it, we learned a brief history of some of the more notorious murderers in U.S. history. We studied their backgrounds, methods, and obsessions, trying to get a glimpse into their patterns and see how authorities were able to track down and apprehend a number of these people. One of the more interesting stories was that of The Green River Killer, a serial murderer based out of the Pacific Northwest, and how the lead investigator conducted a number of interviews with another famous criminal, Ted Bundy, in an attempt to catch the killer before he struck again. This fascinated me, as I remembered the exact same process done in Jonathan Demme’s great, tense thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
There’s something about serial killers that frightens me more cinematically than ghosts, werewolves, or vampires. This is because serial killers are real. They are the real world boogeymen, performing ghastly acts of unspeakable nature. To know that there have been real people out there that closely resemble some of the villains in this movie is truly unnerving. Which makes it interesting, given that this film, with its very brutal and graphic content, would go on to be one of the most highly acclaimed films of its year. It would sweep the competition at the 1992 Academy Awards, winning for Best Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay, and Picture, even though it was released over a year prior to the ceremony. That says a lot about how much of an indelible impression it would have on audiences. And it’s true: it’s hard to walk away from this movie and not remember the strong characters, the cunning and dangerous villains, the memorable direction and high caliber acting. It’s a film that can shock and keep you on the edge of your seat, but keep you connected with its focus on character development as well.
While most people will understandably remember the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), the strength of the film—which in turn has become a weakness of its sequels and prequels—is not him, but Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). She is the main character of the movie; we follow her story arc and root for her to come out unharmed. What an interesting person we have here. Demme (along with Ted Tally, who wrote the screenplay based off the book by Thomas Harris) crafted a character that is not your typical, take charge, super FBI agent who knows exactly what to do and when to do it. In fact, Starling isn’t even a true FBI agent, but a student still in training. She is an underdog who finds herself in a situation that is way over her head. Nervousness just barely hides underneath her surface, but Starling’s biggest asset is her unwavering determination, her willingness to push forward through any obstacle. This must take an incredible amount of willpower, because not only is she a student, but a woman. While it is never said aloud, constant looks by other officers clearly shows what their feelings are about a female taking part in an investigation. She gets hit on a number of times by the men she encounters, and even her commanding officer Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) refuses to talk about the graphic details of a sexually motivated murder in front her. And yet she continues undeterred. Which makes it only appropriate that at the end of the movie, Clarice will face the killer by herself.
But to get to the killer, Clarice has to understand him and his methods. To do so, she turns to Dr. Lecter. A serial killer known as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) has been kidnapping women, killing them and removing their skins for his own twisted uses. His latest victim is Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), daughter to a senator. It has been determined that Buffalo Bill waits three days before he murders them, which gives the FBI very little time to try to capture him. Crawford sent Clarice to Dr. Lecter in an attempt to gain some knowledge, to use his brilliance to gain further insight on Buffalo Bill and his possible whereabouts. The very best scenes in the movie are between these two characters, and their conversations with each other. Her desperately trying to get answers out of him, and his unique fascination with her and the underlying reasons for her ambitions. There is a kind of unique bond the two have, Clarice feeling ostracized in a world dominated by men and Lecter literally being physically ostracized from the human race for being a psychopathic cannibal. But the two seem to interact in a way where they are on par with one another; they seem to treat each other as equals, even though they clearly work on two opposite ends of the spectrum. And while Lecter can kill without breaking a sweat, we sense that he actually cares for Clarice, and wouldn’t harm her, even if he were free.
There are strong characters, there are memorable characters, but very few have reached the almost iconic status that Hannibal Lecter has. He joins the ranks of classic villains that include Darth Vader and Norman Bates. What the film does great is how it introduces Lecter before we even see him. For the first few scenes of the movie, the characters are simply talking about him, about how he was a brilliant clinical psychiatrist who once treated patients, went crazy, and started killing and eating his victims. His cell is located at the very bottom of a maximum-security prison, like a monster caged in a dungeon. What sets him a part from other movie villains is that he is so…polite. Lecter has a charm about him, a wit and sophistication that would actually make him interesting to talk to if it weren’t for the fact that he may try to eat you. He listens to classical music, draws and paints, and always seems to have everything put in specific order. When Clarice first meets him, she passes a number of other inmates who are wild and uncontrollable, but he is quiet, standing completely still and erect, even greeting her courteously. This makes him feel even more dangerous, knowing exactly what he is capable of. He can kill without even elevating his heart rate, and when one of the other inmates mistreats Clarice, he has him commit suicide by simply talking to him. Lecter would very much rather talk about you than himself. That’s what makes him such a memorable villain: the way he can do such terrible things, but is so interestingly eloquent at the same time.