What else can The Silence of the Lambs (1991) be but a monster movie? It endures because it presents a great synthesis of classic and Gothic horror. We have a hero traversing two demons—one a Sphinx, a mutant riddler for whom a wrong answer could mean your life, the other a miscreation who is remaking himself with the bodies of others, both Frankenstein and his monster at once. But beyond one of the great creepers, it is a devastating portrait of sexism, deviancy and the way we use our ceaseless, invasive eyes.
If Jonathan Demme’s movie was just a psycho-sexual potboiler it would still be one hell of a movie, but Demme makes it much more than that. It behaves like any number of serial killer movies, but like many of its characters, The Silence of the Lambs is dressed up like one thing but deep down is something else. Yet at its center is a woman navigating these snares who is forthright, compassionate and brave.
This is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), student agent with the FBI, who beyond battling wits with a psychological aberration and matching forces with a brutal killer has to withstand the penetrating eyes of her male colleagues, the patronizing indignities of those who don’t believe in her and the anxiety of riding in an elevator full of tall, serious men. She takes that ride to see Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the Bureau chief who’s getting nowhere in his investigation of Buffalo Bill, a horrifying serial killer, who has been terrorizing the Ohio Valley by killing young women, removing sections of their skin and dumping the bodies. Crawford believes that a psychological profile of the killer based on the evidence they now have will serve to be crucial to catching him; the problem is that the sharpest tool available for understanding the criminal mind is a criminal himself, the former psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who made a name for himself by eating his patients before Crawford led the investigation that put him away. Now in a maximum security prison, Lecter won’t cooperate with Crawford, who thinks sending young Starling to him will pique his interest. It certainly arouses the curiosity of the smug Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), the supervisor of the asylum where Lecter is held, who leeringly comments on Starling’s looks when she arrives to interrogate Lecter.
The trip into the bowels of the asylum to Lecter’s cell further ties Lecter to a creature of mythology, as he is the beast waiting at the end of the labyrinth. Tales of his deviancy are told to Starling as well as the long list of extreme cautions she is to take when dealing with him. Though it seems strange to say so after a build–up such as that, Lecter as portrayed by Hopkins, does not disappoint. When she reaches the final level, she alone must make a walk down the cell block in which a number of terrifying miscreants gawk at her before she reaches Lecter’s cell, where he’s waiting for her at stiff attention. This is a haunting introduction as Lecter reveals himself as a airish and mannered sophisticate and a decisive psychological penetrator, quickly and devastatingly sizing Starling up (it’s later learned that Lecter’s power of deduction will lead a man to swallow his own tongue).
The relationship between Lecter and Starling is the key one, as she is able to coax him into helping the investigation, not out of some sense of good (he doesn’t have one) but by getting him to respect her. This comes at a price, however; he will trade insights into Buffalo Bill only if she gives him personal information about herself, coalescing with a childhood story about Starling running away from her foster home with a lamb that was set to be slaughtered. While Starling continues to work on Lecter, Bill has taken another victim, the daughter of a Tennessee senator. Bill’s pattern has been to keep the girls alive for three days so Starling’s questioning of Lecter takes on urgency. Her guile and navigation of his clues lead her to discover Buffalo Bill is Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) and that, having been rejected for a sex-change operation, he is skinning his victims to use as a “female suit” of his own making. Faced with such unthinkable aberrance (and getting her clues from someone just as abhorrent), it’s up to Starling to put the final pieces together and stop the monster.
I’ve seen it put forth that Lecter’s and Starling’s relationship is a romantic one, which is insulting to Starling, who wants Lecter’s respect only because it will bring her closer to stopping a killer. The movie underlines the working woman’s daily entanglements with lecherous coworkers or unwelcome dalliances from associates, and Starling is a master at professionally but courteously defraying these advances, allowing her to get what she needs from her male counterparts without offending them. Assuming that Lecter feels any romantic affection toward Starling (which I simply don’t see), any accession to those feelings is in the same vein; she’s playing along as politely as possible while still demanding the things she needs. No, Lecter and Starling are not in love, an idea so ridiculous Lecter literally mocks it, but they are uneasy colleagues whose mutual intellectual satisfaction would be more disturbing if we, like Starling, didn’t understand that it’s a means to an end, and that end will put the helpless out of danger.
Further, it’s been suggested that Starling is caught between two father figures, Crawford and Lecter, but I don’t think that’s the case either. She’s very much her own woman, taking certain initiatives, acting upon her own instincts, speaking truth to power. The story of the lambs has special significance. Not only does it reveal Starling’s clemency, which impresses Lecter, but it also is a parallel for where Starling finds herself. Women in films are often acted upon, left little choice in terms of their fate, and the fate of a domesticated lamb has only two fates: to be eaten (Lecter) or to be skinned (Gumb). That Starling attempts to give the animal a third option is revealing about her desire to protect the unprotected, but it’s also an acknowledgement of her insistence on making her own path.
That’s what The Silence of the Lambs is about: Clarice Starling rejecting what society has put forth as her options. The movie fell under criticism when it was released for being homophobic, presenting Gumb as an unredeemable monster as our villain who is presumably gay. I’ve never read the movie that way. It’s always seemed to me that the reason Gumb is an aberration has little to do with his sexual orientation and everything to do with the fact that he murders people and then skins them, and that connection between the two, if any, is hardly universal. I see Gumb as a horror-house mirror to the role the male-driven world wants Starling to play. Its subtly suggested that there are some in the Bureau that think a woman agent is in the same category of abnormal as Lecter and Gumb, that to want to do what she does, somewhere Starling must have gone off the tracks. Of course, she’s as qualified as any one, in the top of her class, but there’s a vague sexism to her being given the assignment because she’s young and pretty first and because she may be the best person for it second.
Her value to the Bureau in this case is her femininity but in a shallow way; they don’t value the additional insight that femininity actually provides. She comes to a house of one of the victims where the police have been many times and is able to unearth new evidence, finding clues stashed behind the lining of a music box that a person who was once a young girl might know is a good place to hide things. To that end, Gumb doesn’t represent a monstrous version of homosexuality but a deformed variety of the feminine ideal. His interests are in beauty and sewing, traditionally female concerns, and he certainly has an idea of what a woman should be, as he is creating himself as his ideal woman. This grotesque representation is the unnatural cousin of the judging looks the other authority figures give to Starling.
Much of The Silence of the Lambs is about looking. Demme and his director of photography Tak Fujimoto compose many shots in tight close-up with the actors looking directly at the camera. Lingering stares at Starling are emphasized from the very first sequence in the movie and we are always aware of eyes grazing upon her. So implicit is the movie’s motif of looking that it joins Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) as the great movies about dangerous peering. But while Psycho made the audience horribly aware of it, and Peeping Tom implicated the moviegoer of it, only The Silence of the Lambs manages to make the audience feel it. The final showdown between Starling and Gumb gives us the point of view of Gumb through night vision goggles watching the helpless Starling fumble in the dark. This is standard slasher movie material, but after being made aware of the way men look at women and being subjected to it ourselves for the first 90 percent of the movie, we realize, now that it represents a real life and death situation, how invasive a stare can be.
The embodiment of this is Hannibal Lecter, whose gaze pierces beyond the sexual to an instant and total understanding. He sees all, and his omnipotent stare has the power to reduce all who fall under it to his quick estimation, linking him for the third time to a creature of mythical danger. Now he is the Medusa, except to look upon him is not to turn into stone (it is Lecter who spends most of his time in stillness) but to be absorbed by him somehow, a dangerous place to be. Yet that type of power is seductive. The movie gives us two psychopaths and it’s not easy to pick our favorite. It’s not that we forgive him his crimes, for we are always aware of them, but Lecter’s suave and refined demeanor give way to a sort of camp (“I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner”), and unlike the predatory Gumb he lives (and kills) by a code, albeit a deranged one, that seems to want to destroy what he defines as discourtesy. I reject the notion that Demme or the filmmakers “like” Lecter, or that they implore us to do so, because the grisly scene of his escape firmly reminds us what a monster he is, but his serpentine smoothness is not without a disturbing appeal.
All this is laid bare in a scene between Lecter, tied in a straight-jacket and fit with a mask, and the Tennessee senator whose daughter has been abducted. The unblinking Lecter runs through an elegant locution about the seriousness of the situation, drawing in the senator’s trust before throwing it back at her with a crude remark. As the outraged senator demands he be taken away, he relents with the crucial information about her daughter’s kidnapper, mercilessly wounding her by casually referring to her as “Mom.” When he’s finished and the senator can hardly get him out of her sight quick enough, he calls for her attention one last time, and the man who sees all and knows the creepy, slimy feeling a woman can get from attention from an unwanted man, says, “Love your suit.”