(Warning: If, by some chance, you haven’t seen this movie yet, well go correct that post-haste, and know that I’m going to be pretty casual about discussing the story throughout, so spoilers ahoy.)
I've lost count of the number of times I've watched The Silence Of The Lambs, lost count of the number of times I've read the novel on which it was based as well. I know this movie very well, at least in a story-and-dialogue sense. On the other hand, I've never actually sat down and watched it with sort of a critical perspective, and doing so for the purposes of this post, I noticed some things I've never noticed before. However many years and viewings later, I find myself still surprised by this film.
It’s a procedural, about FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling. She’s a focused, driven student. She wants to be of service, to do an important job very well, to prove herself even if it’s not immediately apparent to who. She begins the film running through the woods, but it’s a neat little inversion - she’s not a victim or Final Girl. She’s on an obstacle course, pushing herself as hard as possible, to make herself strong. Starling is pulled off the course and summoned to the office of Jack Crawford, head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science division. These are the people who profile serial killers, who tell the field agents for whom they should be searching. This is what Starling wants to do when she graduates. She wants to come to work for Crawford. With this in mind, Crawford has asked her to run an “errand” - to administer a behavioral questionnaire to a notorious serial killer named Hannibal Lecter. As it transpires, Lecter has no interest in the questionnaire, as much as he does in discussing Crawford’s current active case - the hunt for an entirely different serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.” Lecter seems to know something about the killer, and about the case.
Which is interesting, given how long Lecter’s been locked away.
In lesser hands, this would be utterly cringeworthy, and iterations on exactly this premise have been exactly that cringeworthy in what are indeed lesser hands. Serial killer movies often come across as trite to the point of offensiveness, I think, and I think the thoughtfulness with which the filmmakers approached the subject goes a long way toward distinguishing this film from other treatments of the same topic. The larger budget and major-studio clout enabled them to work directly with the FBI, basing their killer on actual case files and giving the setting and the dialogue some procedural realism. The film is also played entirely with a straight face, with a certain quiet and somber gravity about it that makes it feel like something terrible happening in the world we inhabit, not some smirky showoff for a gimmicky murderer or excuse to run an improbably costumed hulk through an abattoir filled with indiscreet teens for ninety minutes.
And maybe there’s a class argument to be made, here - that this movie is good because the studio gave it the money to be good, and recruited talented filmmakers and known talents, and paid for good sets and lots of research that poorer filmmakers just don’t have. Maybe all the shitty, awful serial killer films aren’t entirely the filmmaker’s fault if you need big-studio budgets to fully realize the idea. Because on paper, this could be a shitty, terrible movie. Money made it good, and that same money and the legitimacy it provides is probably why this film won a shitload of Academy Awards instead getting four stars from some blog writer who goes by the name “Doctor Morbid” or some shit as the height of its critical reception.
But that’s not really why I wanted to write about this film. This time, when I sat down to watch The Silence Of The Lambs, I think I put together for the first time some things that had sort of occurred to me on the periphery before, but had never really crystallized because I was just sort of watching it for the familiar experience of watching it, listening to the rhythms of the dialogue and the events, admiring the neat little narrative fillips. So some of this will probably occur to some of you as sort of a “no shit, Sherlock” sort of thing and yeah, you’re right. But this is what happens when you approach a familiar piece of art with new eyes.
First, women are pretty much entirely objects in this film. I mean certainly, there's the obvious ways, in terms of Buffalo Bill skinning women to make himself a girl suit in an effort at transformation (as if one can appropriate femininity by literally putting it on) and the way he, as a serial killer, depersonalizes Catherine in order to make it emotionally easier to starve, murder, and skin her. So yeah, for Buffalo Bill women (and womanhood) are actually objects, it’s not even metaphorical. But it's also embodied (ha) in the way that people treat Clarice throughout the film - there’s a brief but telling scene where Clarice and her friend Ardelia are jogging and a bunch of male students running the other way look back to check out their asses as they run. There’s asylum chief Chilton's comments to Starling about her looks and the way he hits on her. Sure, we’re not supposed to sympathize with him, we’re supposed to think he’s a creep, but it’s really the obviousness of his sexism - not the sexism itself - that distinguishes him from other male characters. Crawford and Lecter both employ Clarice as a tool, or pawn, or go-between. Clarice begins the film following Crawford’s orders and chasing down Lecter’s clues, and she develops agency over the course of the film as she takes more and more initiative, until ultimately it’s just her on her own, literally in the dark and surviving entirely by her own wits. Even Senator Ruth Martin - a powerful, capable woman - is ultimately there not for her own sake, but as a proxy. Her influence is invoked under false pretenses by the FBI to provide an incentive for Lecter, and Chilton subverts that to wield her authority in service of his own self-promotion, which Lecter in turn exploits. She is, at best, a figurehead throughout her negotiations with Chilton and Lecter, appearing, making pronouncements, and vanishing again into a cloud of government men. And then there’s poor Frederica Bimmel, and the unnamed girl in West Virginia, unseeing bodies examined and documented as evidence, as objects for inquiry.
Second, there's also a strong undercurrent of seeing and being seen running throughout this film. It’s something I think I’d noticed on casual viewing but this time it really hit me how many of the shots in this film are close-ups on faces. Most conversations are shot as alternating close-ups on the two people talking, so it's as if we're taking the point of view of each person in the conversation in turn, and it’s pretty rare to see more than one person in frame at a time. Almost all of Clarice’s conversations with people are shot this way, so we’re focused on her face to one degree or another, with the tightness of the shot sometimes heightening tension, sometimes giving us space to see her react. A lot of her conversations also occur across barriers or dividers - bars, plexiglass, even desks. There’s something in her way, something between her ability to see others and others seeing her. We see Catherine from Bill's point of view, and Bill from Catherine's, and there’s always distance between them, indicating the depersonalization otherwise indicated by Bill’s use of “it” to refer to Catherine. In West Virginia, we see Starling being stared at by a roomful of cops, with the perspective switching from just her to a multitude of eyes pressing down on her. Buffalo Bill performs for a video camera - sort of a desperate loneliness in that he has nobody else to see him, but he wants to be seen so badly. Even his closest interactions with women occur through the mediation of nightvision goggles - he’s always a step removed from the thing he wants most. Framing the majority of the shots this way makes the film very intimate and immediate- we’re seeing everything through the eyes of the people in the film. Lecter even comments on this, asking Clarice if she’s aware of eyes looking her over, appraising her. We first covet what we see every day.
And then finally, on top of all of this, there's what I’ve appreciated about this movie from the first time I ever saw it: Hannibal Lecter, playing the long game. From his earliest appearances in the film, he has an excellent idea of what's going on (after all, memory is what he has instead of a view, and he’s encountered Bill’s earliest work), and he spends most of the film's runtime amusing himself, waiting for everyone else to catch up. In his first meeting with Clarice, he alludes to her good bag and cheap shoes - accessories (often made of leather) that signify the feminine, and he notes the skin cream she uses. There's all of the other quick jabs - allusions to "Simplicity," his remark to Starling about how "you're so close to how you're going to catch him," his catty aside to Senator Martin about her suit. It’s easy to point to the obvious bits about Lecter - his dramatic “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” line, most egregiously abused - but it’s this hidden breadcrumb trail he leaves throughout the movie, purely for his own amusement, that contributes so strongly to one of the most chilling portrayals of villainy in the 20th century. It’s an expression of the same manic glee in his eyes when Clarice comes to him desperate, with time running out, the effortless shift from his animalistic savaging of a police officer to his appreciation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He’s not divided between man and monster, he’s fully at home with both. No real histrionics, no monologuing, just a glint in his eye at some private joke. It’s a pity the character became caricature, as sequels so often allow, but in this film Hannibal Lecter is a vivid monster: An aesthete with the blank, unfeeling eyes of a shark.