Directed by Jonathan Demme. Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine. Orion Pictures.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Depictions of disturbing violence, including kidnapping, murder, and mutilation; recurring profanity and vulgar language; a post-mortem examination scene.
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By Steven D. Greydanus
One night in 1808, a miserable-looking man came to the Manchester office of one Dr. James Hamilton looking for help. "Doctor," he groaned, "I am sick unto death. I am frightened of the terror of the world around me. I am depressed by life. I can find no happiness anywhere, and I have nothing to live for. If you can’t help me, I shall kill myself."
Dr. Hamilton regarded him compassionately. "Sir, this malady is not mortal. You only need to get out of yourself, to get some pleasure from life. I will tell you what to do. Go to the circus tonight to see the clown Grimaldi. He’s phenomenal. Grimaldi can cure any depression."
As he spoke, doctor was surprised to see a dreadful shadow came over the man’s face. "Doctor," the man replied despairingly, "I am Grimaldi."
Facing up to evil
There’s a certain telling horror to that deceptively simple anecdote. If laughter is "the best medicine", Grimaldi the clown is a physician of the soul: yet not only is he unable to heal himself (and unlikely to find better treatment elsewhere), he is able to heal others only insofar as they remain unaware of his true condition. Those who become aware of it, as Dr. Hamilton has now done, can hardly take joy in his performance. The illusion has been seen through — the emperor has no clothes — and Hamilton, who only a moment ago was ready to recommend the emperor as a source of clothing for the naked, may well feel naked himself.
A similar horror is at work in the figure of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins in his best-known role), one of the great movie villains of all time. We live in a therapeutic culture, a society that reduces evil to illness or ignorance or neurosis, that looks to therapy and education and insight to cure our ills.
That complacent outlook is shattered by Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, with his ghoulishly disordered appetites and horrifically amoral behavior. If anyone ever "needed help", it’s this man: yet he is himself a crushingly brilliant psychiatrist, not to mention a vastly urbane, sophisticated, learned man. He’s self-actualized; he’s non-codependent; he’s got boundless self-esteem. He listens to classical music, draws with sensitivity and feeling, and knows what kind of wine goes with liver and fava beans. The only catch is the liver he has a taste for is human.
Lecter fascinates us because he embodies qualities that we associate with civilized, reasonable existence, yet he is murderously sociopathic. In our therapeutic age, he’s a shocking reminder that, beyond all psychobabble about "behavior modification" and the like, there remains the sheer reality of good and evil. The doctor is in: God help us all.
Most horror movie villains are merely repellent; not many move us enough to truly frighten us. Hannibal Lecter is one of the few who does. Even in captivity, he’s deeply unnerving. The first time we see him, he’s imprisoned underground in the last cell of a high-security dungeon — not behind bars, like the other, lesser prisoners, but behind unbreakable Plexiglas. It hardly seems sufficient to contain him. Later, he’s moved to a freestanding cage in a heavily guarded government building, and all we can think is: dear Lord, no — not mere bars.
Standing up to evil
For all that, though, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (based on the Thomas Harris novel) is not ultimately about Hannibal Lecter, or how dangerous he is, or how fascinating. It’s about Clarice Starling (virtuoso Jodie Foster), a fledgling FBI trainee (sort of a young, Tennessee-bred Agent Scully) who has been assigned to go toe-to-toe with that larger-than-life bogeyman Lecter, like David squaring off against Goliath. An ordinary young woman of no special distinction, Starling is so obviously no match for Lecter that he is at first disbelieving ("Jack Crawford sent a student to interview me?"), then intrigued.
That, of course, is the point. Lecter can’t be beaten on his own terms; and Starling doesn’t even try. She can’t analyze or psychologize him. She can’t stop him from seeing right through her — her hillbilly upbringing, her trials as a woman in a male-dominated environment, even her childhood fears and traumas. All she can do is stand up to him, which is often all any of us can do in the face of unimaginable evil.
It’s enough. Lecter initially dissects Starling with the same lazy contempt he has for everyone; but when he sees her affronted by a third party (another prisoner) whom he holds in even greater contempt, Lecter’s egotism drives him to take her side, to help her. Soon, with his aid, Starling is on the trail of another serial killer still at large — the infamous "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Levine), whose own bizarre pathology drives him to kidnap, imprison, and murder women before mutilating their bodies.
Eventually, of course, Starling will take on "Buffalo Bill"; but the heart of Silence is in her determined battle of wits with Dr. Lecter. Despite her disadvantages, she manages to hold her own against him, even catching him out once or twice. She interests him — and he her. Clearly there’s some sort of beauty-and-the-beast subtext here; though for Clarice Lecter is as much an anti-father-figure as an anti-love-interest.
Perhaps it’s simply that Clarice treats Lecter as a person rather than as a case study or a sideshow freak; she may be the only one who’s done so in years. It would be going too far to say that she shows him Christian charity (as Susan Sarandon showed Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking); but she at least shows him basic respect. Lecter may be evil, but he’s still a man, not a monster or demon; and he responds to this.
Holding up a mirror to evil
Although its subject matter is frequently abhorrent, and some viewers will understandably find it unendurable, The Silence of the Lambs does not sensationalize or glamorize its darkest elements, nor does it deploy them gratuitously.
Some of the most wrenching scenes involve "Buffalo Bill" and one of his kidnapped victims. Yet far from glorifying the evil they portray, these scenes expose its horror and dehumanizing nature. The film stresses, for example, that Bill takes care to treat his victims as impersonal objects, even speaking to them in the third person with the impersonal pronoun "it." (By way of contrast, note the gratuitously repeated scenes of the woman in the hydro-deathtrap in The Cell, a soulless Silence knockoff.)
It’s also worth noting that Bill’s perversion has to do with a kind of gender confusion, a disordered rejection of the basic reality of one’s maleness or femaleness. Because of this, Silence has drawn some fire from homosexual activists resenting the convergence with the natural law.
Of course, while Bill is far from glamorized, Lecter himself is another matter. Yet, because we are always looking at him through Clarice’s eyes — never looking at the world through Lecter’s eyes — the basic moral orientation of the film remains intact. Lecter is a movie villain akin to Dracula; he’s undeniably fascinating, but never for an instant are we invited or tempted to adopt his value system. (Again, contrast The Cell, where the whole point of the film, for the audience, is to get inside Carl Stargher’s mind, to experience the compelling imaginative force of the images and motifs that make up his misogynistic, necrophilic outlook.)
Demme shows restraint and taste in the way he depicts the film’s horrors. Consider a crucial, riveting scene in the middle of the film, in which Hannibal has done something ghastly to a downed policeman, though the full extent of it isn’t immediately clear. Then in an instant we understand: yet the camera’s careful placement spares us the gross-out shot, leaving it to us to figure out what happened (which is incidentally creepier and more effective as well as more subtle, tasteful, and intelligent).
By the way, the hugely suspenseful scene referred to above is one of two sequences in the film that turn upon an unexpected twist that forces viewers to rethink what they’ve just seen. This time, it’s brilliant. The second time, though, when directorial sleight-of-hand (Demme cheerfully calls it "deceptive cutting") is used to make the audience think that characters are somewhere other than where they really are, I found it annoying and intrusive, a misuse of storytelling technique. The earlier twist flows from the story itself, and is about Lecter’s cleverness; the latter is a mere conceit, and is about Demme’s cleverness. It’s a small flaw in an exceptionally gripping film.
Ten years later, The Silence of the Lambs retains its power.