The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Thrillers don’t have Oscar potential. It’s a fact of life, one that’s bothered me ever since I became conscious of it because I would name them as my favorite genre, albeit one that’s nearly dried up. Case in point: the only Alfred Hitchcock film ever to take Best Picture was a romantic drama, Rebecca, with only mild thriller elements. Does massive game-changer The Silence of the Lambs stand out as the film that deserved to not only provide one of a mere handful of exceptions to this rule (The French Connection, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, and Argo being the only others by my count) but to virtually create a new series of Hollywood clichés in the form of the serial-killer picture? My answer is yes, absolutely, and the proof is in the celluloid itself and its history — destined nearly for a direct to video release and dumped by Orion in the dead of winter, it was so clearly a masterpiece by nearly all accounts that its embrace by the Academy, where it went on to become only the third (and last, to date) film to receive all five major Oscars, was nearly inevitable in a sense. The film is so brilliant, indeed, that there’s almost no way to praise it accurately without sounding vaguely ridiculous.
Whatever twist of fate brought the extremely unlikely choice of Jonathan Demme to this project is to be forever blessed in Hollywood lore. Film critics who’d begged him as an American Renoir were miffed by his attachment to a pop-psych serial killer mystery; you can say they were correct to predict that this film’s success would bring in a tiresome trend, with some excellent (Se7en) and some unfortunate (Copycat) results, but they somehow missed the way his Melvin & Howard humanism is the perfect way to enliven and broaden Thomas Harris’ story. (It’s seldom mentioned that this film is in fact a sequel, to the earlier Harris adaptation Manhunter by Michael Mann, later regrettably remade as Red Dragon.) As ever, Demme shows a fascination with and a keen eye for the way people live and think — not “normal” people or “eccentric” people either, just people. In a sense truly rare for this genre, all of the occupants seem to breathe, whether their actions are good or evil or neutral; the people doing their jobs behave like people doing their jobs, and the people with ulterior motives and dark intentions are full-bodied, never screenwriterly concoctions. And how thrilled Alfred Hitchcock would be that Demme here sidesteps what in the ’40s and ’50s would have been the inevitable love interest for the protagonist (especially in a film driven by a female lead), a studio hindrance he gently mocked in Sabotage and Shadow of a Doubt but was victimized by many other times.
That leads us to the major reason Lambs is so haunting, and the major sense in which it works within yet expands upon the Hitchcock palette: the seriousness with which Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally approach the characters. The movie’s short, focused, even streamlined in plot terms, but it has an epic sweep as a result of the grandness of the three triangular figures at the center of the piece, their convergences and divergences as individuals and in story function: there is Quantico student Clarice Starling, able-bodied, eager, defiantly refusing to be imposed upon despite her tiny frame, and engaging in an act of both self-proof and of permanent personal alteration in her dealings with her superiors as well as Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is a droll intellectual who happens to have made a practice of eating people’s faces off, but that’s all in the past as he now collaborates with Starling for oblique reasons that suggest something like a rapport — and yet of course his intentions are more complex than we initially realize. The film refuses to pare Starling down to a traditional female figurine; her career is as much of her world as we come to know, but we know her — why she’s here, what she wants — in a true sense simply from her tortuously intimate exchanges with Lecter. And Lecter is never the mere fearsome villain he could’ve been, for we hate his captors as much as he does, yet of course his embodiment of evil places him in some sort of high-minded, galvanizing Gothic tradition. That’s a stark contrast to Buffalo Bill, a thin-voiced and wispy presence who redefines a certain secluded Pygmalion-like sadism yet whose duplicity feels scarily separate from the movie world we consciously know — but unconsciously forget! — we’re participating in.
Demme is given a story here with a bag of delightful, horrifying tricks and he unveils them, in perfect rhythm, with a shot of mastery; few movies have ever used their deceptive sleight of hand with such breathless glee as this one in that moment near the climax when two cross-cut houses become one nightmare. But Demme’s truest and most lasting accomplishment is the horror film image set he begins to craft as soon as Hannibal is first seen standing at unnerving attention in the dead center of his cell, all pieces of iconography on a level with James Whale’s Frankenstein. It’s still early to say yet, but it may even prove as lasting a part of American culture as Whale’s film; it certainly has lost little of its zest and impact in the twenty-two years since its release. And that cold-blooded rush you feel as you watch this for the fifth or sixth time is no accident. Rather it’s infused in that tricky balance between the thriller and horror genres, the purity and tension of Demme’s completely unexpected virtuosity with both. When he and Tally prove themselves able to play you like a piano even on repeat viewings, it can’t possibly be accidental that one’s memory quietly reaches backward to Psycho and The Birds, even Jaws, and that mixture of terror and delight that eventually greets every shot, every scare, every memorized moment.
I’m convinced, however, that the canon in which Silence belongs most is the Demme canon; it’s revelatory to see it in close proximity with Melvin and Howard, Philadelphia or even Rachel Getting Married and to then note how his trademarked use of eyes and eye contact (directly into camera) is twisted so unnervingly around into something that reels us uncomfortably in for the exhilarating, nearly intolerable intensity here. Like Whale and Hitchcock before him, Demme delights in establishing the audience as direct participants, Clarice as their not-altogether-willing guide as the fears, resistances and warm contacts in her life gather into an emotional storm. It’s hard to remember a time when an emotionally sophisticated horror film even seemed possible, but isn’t the same true of the concert film? Stop Making Sense shares this film’s simultaneous intimacy and grandness and is also a masterpiece — and so completely different as to seemingly be beside the point, yet you can tell with little hesitation that they share a director.
Silence received some criticism in its time for what was then perceived as homophobia or transphobia (although Bill is explicitly stated to merely be making a frustrated play at attaining a gender identity he doesn’t have), and there may or may not be truth in this depending on whether you believe that, for instance, Rope‘s depiction of homosexual murderers is homophobic (despite its being written by and starring three gay or bisexual men). In fact, the read of Bill that Demme provides is if anything a compassionate one, casting him as a disturbed man in need of help rather than an irredeemable monster, with tics and eccentricities that are only inches away from being seemingly lifted from one of Demme’s gentler ’80s films. And the film’s major concern is clearly his simultaneous worship of and feeling of power over the female form, which ties in nicely with the critiques of gender norms that occur throughout Clarice’s own character arc, wherein she’s more than once condescended to and kept out of discussions because of her sex (and potentially, though it’s never directly mentioned, her sexuality). Clarice’s life is hindered by a heteronormative, misogynistic society and culture — “I can smell your cunt,” indeed — but she raises herself beyond it in a way that Bill, tormented by his impulses, is unable, and he repeats a cycle that destroys himself and others. It’s only too appropriate that he is himself killed by a woman.
That last act occurs in a night-vision climax that’s so indescribably suspenseful that it feels strange to say it isn’t even the best sequence in the picture. Jodie Foster’s performance as Starling is sincerely masterful, but there’s a reason Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter became so iconic despite its relatvie brevity, even its eventual separation from the main narrative. The unsettling atmosphere created during all of Foster and Hopkins’ scenes together would be excruciating enough, but Hopkins, Demme, Tally, and all others concerned truly enter the annals of superlative filmmaking forever in the immaculately designed fifteen-minute sequence of Dr. Lecter’s escape midway through. Having thought about it extensively for a couple of months now, I feel I can conclusively name it as the second greatest suspense scene in any movie I’m aware of, overtaken only by the also obliquely sensual, terrifying carnival murder in Strangers on a Train. Since that’s my favorite scene of any kind in all of American cinema, I may be saying even more than that about the Lambs peak, which gives a chill or two just to remember: the strung-up body, the pregnancy of the prelude, the breathless elevator ride, the revelation. It’s only as a result of the beauty and perfection of this creation that our emotional rollercoaster feels so complete yet so unresolved and strange and wondrous when the film finally ends on its classically amiguous low note. It’s as fulfilling a movie experience as we can have, and Hitchcock and Whale would’ve certainly approved.