The Silence of the Lambs: A Blood-Drenched Romance

Of all the films you might expect to win the Best Picture award at the Oscars, a detective thriller about a serial killer who skins women to make a woman suit and another cannibalistic serial killer who’s helping an FBI agent to catch him may not top that list, but in at the 1992 Oscars, such a film did win the Best Picture award, and with good reason.

That film was The Silence of the Lambs, and it is still viewed today as one of the very best thrillers ever made, and one of the most talked about movies of all time. The film stars Jodie Foster as FBI Trainee Clarice Starling, and Anthony Hopkins as cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, and is based on the 1988 bestseller by Thomas Harris.

The film not only one best picture, but also a Best Director award for filmmaker Jonathan Demme, a Best Adapted Screenplay award for writer Ted Tally, a Best Actor for Hopkins, and a Best Actress for Foster, one of the few films to ever achieve such a sweeping victory at the Academy Awards. So what is it that makes the film so special?

Sure, it’s a fantastic, well designed thriller that grips you from beginning to end, sure its premise is frightening, sure its villains are brilliantly conceived, but let’s face it, we’d all seen that before, even in ’91. No, what makes Silence of the Lambs so endearing, and enduring, is not its concept, although that’s great, but its characters. Throughout the film we are confronted with a twisted, almost invisible love affair between the young Agent Starling and the killer inmate Lecter, along with the deep seeded obsessions of the skinning killer, Buffalo Bill.

The film begins with Clarice Starling running an obstacle course through the woods as the opening credits flash over the screen and Howard Shore’s haunting music plays. She is called to the office of Jack Crawford (Scott Glen), head of Behavioral Science at the FBI. He asks her to go on an “interesting errand” for him, to submit a questionnaire to the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter in an asylum in Baltimore.

After surviving the asylum’s flirty head Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), Starling goes down into the depths of the asylum to meet Lecter. From then on, they have a strange professional relationship together. Starling goes out and hits another dead end, then returns to Lecter for help, but at a price.

Lecter, a psychiatrist who hasn’t had a patient since he was incarcerated over a decade before, is intrigued by the ambitious Starling and begins to ask her questions about her personal life. In their conversations together, Starling reveals her tragic childhood, including the death of her father and her flight from her cousin’s ranch in Montana after she awoke to the sound of screaming lambs being slaughtered one night. Starling intrigues us from the beginning as an ambitious intelligent young woman with a southern accent, willing to work hard to achieve her goals within the Bureau. Moments in the film are punctuated with flashbacks to her childhood, visions of her father.

Clarice is a frightened young woman fighting for acceptance and advancement, but still in desperate need of a father figure to guide her. She finds that in Jack Crawford, who points her in the right direction and lets her work on the case, takes her along on autopsies, and considers her opinions. The image that comes to mind most when one thinks about Starling is near the opening of the film when she is sweaty and tired after her workout and steps into an elevator filled with men. They all dwarf her in size, and all give her odd looks, but all she does is look at the ceiling and ignore them. That is Clarice Starling, a fighting, struggling woman who is dwarfed by the world around her, but who is always looking skyward.

Then there is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the intelligent, polite psychiatrist arrested and convicted of murder and cannibalism. Before we see Doctor Lecter, we are told by Dr. Chilton how he once attacked a nurse in the asylum, tearing her face apart and eating her tongue, all the while his pulse never rising above 85. I don’t care who you are, that’s scary, so when we Clarice begins her walk down the hall toward his cell, the tension in the audience is incredible, and just when you think you’re going to see a madman, you see a polite, clean little man standing in the middle of his cell who smiles straight at the camera and says “Good morning.”

Immediately the audience is in love with Lecter. As the film progresses, we see the evolution of Lecter’s internal love of Clarice in his attitude. In the beginning he treats her almost childlike, tutoring her in the art of courtesy and winking at her through his cell. The second time he meets her, after she has found a severed head in a storehouse of his personal effects, he tries to scare and shock her, and once again demonstrates his extraordinary perception. While searching the storehouse Clarice scraped her leg, and in the next scene, sitting in the dark outside Lecter’s cell, she hears him say quietly “Your bleeding has stopped.”

At the same time he is courteous, sliding a towel out to her after noticing she’s been out in the rain. Suddenly Lecter is involved with Clarice, wanting to help her solve the case. Their third conversation is much more intense. Dr. Lecter talks to Clarice about Buffalo Bill’s longing for change, but in turn he asks Clarice to tell him about her childhood. In their final conversation amid Lecter’s transfer to a Tennessee prison, she finishes her story, telling him about the screaming lambs and her flight from the ranch.

It is the only point in the movie when Lecter seems emotional, saying simply “Thank you, Clarice. Thank you.” As she is escorted out, he hands her back his copy of the Buffalo Bill case file and touches her finger lightly with his own. Later, before his escape, we see a drawing of her holding a lamb in his cell. At the end of the film the only person he lets in to his life after he’s gone is Clarice, by calling her from an island where he is lying in wait for Dr.Chilton.

Whole articles could be written and have been written about Dr. Lecter’s character, and for good reason. Hannibal Lecter is perhaps one of the most intriguing characters ever created, bar none. If Hannibal Lecter were not a horrible criminal, you would want to know him, you would want to impress him, and you would try to impress him.

As Anthony Hopkins has pointed out many times, he doesn’t blink when he talks, indicating intense focus. He does everything slowly and precisely, including violent acts, indicating not only a cold feeling toward humanity but also a precision that makes him even deadlier. When you see him in his cell he never moves his arms unless he has to, only observes and remarks with callous accuracy. It is as if the world is a giant cage and Lecter is merely visiting a zoo to study the animals.

It is that feeling, the feeling that maybe it’s not Lecter that’s messed up, but us, that makes the character so intriguing. Hannibal Lecter is such a powerful character that he makes us question the very nature of evil.

But Lecter is not the true evil in the film, that job falls to Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Bill has been killing girls for months, skinning them, and dumping the bodies. As the film goes on, we see more and more of Gumb as we get closer to catching him, and as we do we learn more and more about him. The first time we see him is when he is pursuing a victim. He lures her into his van by pretending to have a broken arm and trying to lift a chair.

She helps him, and he takes her. Then we see him leaning over a dry well in his basement (a chamber of horrors that continually unfolds throughout the film), speaking the famous line “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” In this we see him trying his best to be callous, but as the girl begins to cry and beg to see her mother, Bill starts to cry, revealing conflict within the character, revealing that he can fell and can love, making him in some ways even more dangerous. Later, when the girl lures Bill’s dog Precious into her pit, Bill goes crazy and begs her not to hurt his dog, screaming “You don’t know what pain is.”

There is something deeper behind Bill, something frightening that happened to him in his past. At the end of the film, Agent Starling wonders unknowingly into his house to question him, thinking he is just a resident, and he begins to laugh as he asks if the FBI has found something, and therein lies his weakness. He is proud of himself, proud of his accomplishments, and he wants to flaunt it.

Buffalo Bill is a terrifying villain because he wants to change, wants to be beautiful in his own eyes, and he believes anyone is expendable along that path. We see that in a scene where he is making himself up and wearing a woman’s hair complete with scalp and all. It doesn’t matter to him that people are dying, although I think he sees that as unfortunate. What matters is that he becomes sexy. Such an obsession is one of the most frightening ever portrayed in movies, and although we see very little of Bill in the overall film, it is enough for us to understand how deep that obsession goes.

It is the interaction and understanding between these three characters that makes The Silence of the Lambs the great film that it is. Clarice and Lecter find something close to common ground by the end of the film, and they both come to understand Buffalo Bill, while Buffalo Bill doesn’t even understand himself, but flaunts his achievement at Starling and gets caught. It is this unusual triangle of characters, a triangle filled with obsession and desire, the keeps us hooked throughout the film, and makes The Silence of the Lambs one of the greatest thrillers of all time.

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