Part-Time Review: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Film Grade: A+
*This film is a prestigious member of my Film Bible 

Is it a strange thing to say that this is my favorite serial killer movie of all-time? I guess I could put it more politely and say that it's my favorite crime film of all-time...that feels better right? For whatever reason, especially as a young adult, I had a fascination with crime stories - especially serial killer stories. There's just something inherently fascinating to me about a human who has crossed the sacred line of humanity into the great evil of murder. What can we do in the face of it? I know I'm not alone here; the history of cinema and television is filled with crime and murder stories! So what is it about The Silence of the Lambs that makes it stand out from so many of the other crime stories? For my tastes, the film features one of the best fictional crime stories ever told, layers that story with perfectly matched thematic strands, and executes it all with unmatched craft. In other words, it's everything I think a great crime story should be. Stick with me on this lengthier review as I'd like to take some time and explain how this crime genre masterpiece combines story, characters, and craft to present the question "What do you see when you look at people?" as a key to solving the issue of evil.

Let's start with the story. For me, the best and most fascinating serial killer stories have 1) a great villain 2) a great detective and 3) an engaging procedural crime mystery to unravel. First, there are two directions you can go with presenting your killer: make them the everyman who is just one of us or make them the exceptional man who is in a superior class to us; one scares us by their banality, the other their exceptionality. Each figure breaks an unspoken trust we have in them; one is too like us to cross into evil and the other too superior to us to cross into evil. The Silence of the Lambs offers us both kinds, but rightfully elevates the everyman to the central role. Buffalo Bill, a fictional amalgamation of several real-life serial killers, is a perfect distillation of the everyman killer who (for reasons we can and can't understand) has crossed the defining line of humanity. His appearance is pedestrian, he can seem normal to those he meets, and we learn enough about his psychological issues that we can empathize with the pain he must be experiencing. He deeply struggles with his gender identity, so much so that he is convinced he needs to transform into a woman by taking their skins and making it into a suit for himself. It's rational and illogical at the same time - understandable yet incomprehensible.

On the other hand, Hannibal Lecter is a perfect distillation of the exceptional serial killer. Lecter is a well-educated psychologist, an elite of our society who enjoys finer things, whom the public must trust with their deepest secrets. Lecter's willingness to cross the line into the evils of murder and cannibalism scares us because we have an unspoken assumption that education and refinement put people beyond that realm. Anthony Hopkins, known for being able to play refined characters, turned out to be a perfect choice for this character. His performance of Lecter is cold, calculating, manipulating, and yet restrained. You get the feeling from his eyes that there is always multiple agendas going on in Lecter's mind beyond just what he is sharing. He is direct and talkative yet always difficult to read. Both Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter present to us two of our worst nightmares. Most films struggle to present one memorable villains, this one gives us two!

The second key element to a great crime story is the right detective and our lead investigator on the case of Buffalo Bill is Clarice Starling. Jodie Foster's performance as Starling is is one of my favorite female performances of all-time as well as one of my favorite screen heroes of all-time. She is a young, smart, and ambitious F.B.I. trainee from West Virginia looking to make a career in behavior science - understanding and solving serial killer cases.  Clarice gets involved in the Buffalo Bill case when she is brought in by Jack Crawford, the head of the F.B.I.'s Behavioral Science unit, to provide a psychological profile on Hannibal Lecter. He fails to tell Starling that the profile and Lecter himself might be able to help them in the Buffalo Bill case. Jodie Foster's performance as Starling is able to powerfully convey the inexperience, insecurity, and innocence of young a trainee thrust into situations that call for a front of bravado and courage. Once on the case, Starling gets wrapped up into it.

The third key element to a great crime story is an engaging procedural mystery to unravel and this one begins with the subtle messages and clues Lecter gives Starling in their first meeting where Lecter clearly knows more about Bill than he lets on. The question for Clarice is how will she get Lecter to talk about it? The investigation takes Clarice on quite a journey: an old abandoned storage unit of Lecter's stuff where she finds the preserved head of a previous patient (that's one creepy sequence), an inspection of a Buffalo Bill victim where she discovers a unique moth, entomologist research centers, and even canvassing neighbors of victims. Throughout the story the film feeds us clues little by little. It all feels pretty leisurely until the film hits a higher gear when Buffalo Bill kidnaps (in a chilling scene inspired by a method Ted Bundy used) the daughter of a U.S. Senator (he didn't know she was the Senator's daughter). Will she become just another of his many female victims? Tick tock. The slow-moving detective work here feels agonizing slow now with the knowledge another victim has been captured. One other important note, I love crime procedurals that take place in time periods where police can't use the internet, powerful computers, or expensive CSI shortcuts. There's something about the limits of a time period where people don't have cell phones to communicate instantly, computers to connect everything, and cameras on every street corner that makes the work of the detective feel more difficult and satisfying. They have to do real thinking and footwork. Can Clarice get Lecter to help her put all the clues together in time to stop the next murder? 

The story and characters take the primary place in the film (it's a solid genre entry first and foremost), but the director and screenwriter have layered in multiple themes that flesh out the story and make it more than just an engaging and visceral experience. The first major layer here is what it's like to be a female in a career/society that is male-dominated. The central obstacle of the plot is about a female FBI trainee trying to stop a serial killer of women, but the film uses this as an opportunity for the viewer to recognize the other gender-based obstacles Clarice has to overcome along the way. The opening of the film literally has Clarice running an obstacle course when she is invited to see Jack Crawford. I love the moment she gets in the elevator and is surrounded by taller and stronger men - it's a nice visual embodiment of the theme. Jack sends Clarice to interview Lecter precisely because she is a female and might induce him to talk, however Jack never lets Clarice in on this manipulation. 

She's a very smart and talented character, but she sometimes has to hide it. Foster's performance, along with the insightful screenplay, demonstrates that she's learned to conceal many of her strengths that can threaten the men in power that so populate her career field. Her interactions with Hannibal Lecter are legendary not just for their playful dialogue, but the sense that two characters who have an instant chemistry and are playing a serious game with each other, cutting deep at each other's weaknesses and insecurities. After her courageous first interview of Lecter where she seems to stand toe to toe with him, we see Foster weeping by her car, memories of her father flooding her thoughts. The very next shot is her on the firing range. This is Clarice Starling, one of the great underdog characters of all-time struggling not just to hunt Buffalo Bill, but against the everyday obstacles we face as well.

In a later scene, Jack Crawford dismissively talks about Clarice not being fit to hear a discussion of sexual crimes. When Clarice visits the entomologists, they try to get a date in exchange for information echoing a similar offer by Dr. Chilton earlier at the prison. Even Lecter himself initially only gives Clarice what she seeks on a quid pro quo basis. All throughout the story the film recognizes the additional hurdles and walls that have been erected consciously and subconsciously for her as a woman. Thankfully, this is not done in a way that ever detracts from the central story, feels like a tendentious agenda, or turns a character into a flat ideological monster spitting out some straw man tirade that "Women don't belong in the FBI! I'll take you out." When Crawford is eventually confronted by Starling ("it matters sir") for his failings, he considers it, acknowledges what he did, and eventually apologizes. This is not a feminist diatribe against men, but an insightful and humanistic observation of real life differences. 

By crime genre law, the film must also explore the nature of good and evil and few films have done it better than this one too. Buffalo Bill and Lecter present us with the conundrum of evil - humans who have crossed a line into depravity. What do we do in the face of it? How can we understand it? We learn that Starling's father was a law enforcement officer who was killed in the line of duty and that Clarice is motivated by a desire for justice - to help save people from evil. In an iconic discussion between Starling and Lecter we learn that a key emotional moment in her life was when she witnessed the slaughtering of lambs at a relatives farm and couldn't forget their screaming. The connection here is that Starling's distaste for the screaming hurting lambs is a source of drive for her F.B.I work; she wants to silence the lambs by taking down those who slaughter them. Her hope, like all strong good vs. evil stories is that enough will, intelligence, and goodness will eventually overcome the obstacles and evils of our world.

The story and themes are all pulled together and executed with unmatched craft in Jonathan Demme's direction, Ted Tally's screenplay, the iconic performances, and all the other crew who worked on this film. I often think about the combative exchanges between Lecter and Starling, the shocking yet exciting Lecter escape sequence, and the thrilling yet horrifying encounter with Buffalo Bill in his basement. Perhaps the strongest technical aspect in making The Silence of the Lambs such a powerful viewing experience is the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. The film just looks weary of evil. The color palette is desaturated and any exterior shots of nature, buildings, and landscapes or interior shots of rooms, hallways, and vehicles feel cold, distant, and tired like a permanent season of late fall has settled on the world with winter always threatening to arrive. 

The single most powerful craft decision is also a Jonathan Demme film staple - the use of first-person perspective. This proves a powerful way to put us into the shoes of Clarice Starling by constantly using the camera to give us a direct perspective: sometimes hers, sometimes someone else looking at her. This is used to great effect in the basement compound when Bill puts on the night vision goggles and we get his perspective as he hunts and observes a startled Starling; she is an object to hunt and play with for him.  He's not the first to gaze at Starling like his personal object, we see Crawford, Chilton, Lecter, and other side characters do this as well. How can we begin understanding evil? The film seems to be suggesting that it begins with how we look at others. Are they mere objects? Let me give you a perfect example of the craft here combing powerfully with the story and themes.

In a key scene, a U.S. Senator is pleading in a press conference for the kidnapper to release her daughter. Here is what she says: 

"I'm speaking now to the person who is holding my daughter. Catherine is very gentle and kind. Talk to her and you'll see. You have the power. You are in charge. I know you can feel love and compassion. You have a wonderful chance to show the whole world that you can be merciful and strong. That you're big enough to treat Catherine better than the world has treated you. You have that power. Please. My daughter is Catherine."

Watching the conference, Starling remarks, "If he sees Catherine as a person and not just an object, it's harder to tear her up." Think about this for a moment. The scene works perfectly on the surface level of the story - appealing to the serial killer. However, is this not also the solution the film is offering to the obstacles Clarice is experiencing from the other males in her life? Is not the basic message, "See me as a person, not as an object." How can we stop the suffering? To metaphorically "silence the lambs" by seeing each other as persons. Demme and his cinematographer use the first person perspective to visually embody this and ultimately confront the viewer - what do you see when you look - an object or a person?  

The Silence of the Lambs is an engaging crime procedural populated with thrilling moments, two iconic villains, and a relatable underdog detective. The story, characters, and craft perfectly come together to ask the viewer, "What do you see when you look at people?" as a key to the issue of good and evil (big or small) in our world. It can be a tough film to watch due to its subject nature so I don't recommend it for all viewers - especially those who are squeamish to violence or unable to handle horror sequences and adult themes. However, for those willing to wade into the dark waters, I think there's a masterpiece of crime cinema waiting for you.

Film Grade: A+