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Classics Revisited: Silence of the Lambs

Justin here with a new ongoing series of posts where we will re-examine movies that for better or worse were formative movie watching experiences.

The Silence of the Lambs is an acknowledged classic. I don't need to tell you that. Odds are you've seen it. If not, then why? Everything about the movie is absolutely gripping from the first rate performances to the moody atmospheres. The first time I saw The Silence of the Lambs, I was very young. Too young probably. Even though a lot of the nuance was lost on me, it was very clear that the movie provided a powerful take on the struggle between good and evil. More impressively, Silence of the Lambs set my standards very high for horror/thriller movies. Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill are scarier menaces than Freddie Kruger and Jason Vorhees could ever hope to be because they seemed so real. The Silence of the Lambs holds up.

Jonathan Demme really interests me as a director. A lot of directors are really great at capturing the spirit of a time and a place. For Demme, that time was the 80's and early 90's America. In Stop Making Sense, which I think is the best concert movie ever made, Demme exploited the music of the Talking Heads, experimental theater, and a rich pool of images to both satirize and celebrate American values. There's one image that sums it up – David Byrne dancing with a house lamp during “Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place),” the closest thing to a love song the Talking Heads ever wrote. That moment links love, domesticity, avant-garde snobbery, sincerity, and cynicism together into one powerful package.

That ability to effortlessly package so much information into one succinct punch is Demme's greatest strength. I believe that the most effective horror movies are ones that create a strong visual language to evoke our own primal fears. The Silence of the Lambs has that quality in spades.

But ultimately what The Silence of the Lambs is really about is metamorphosis and delusion. The use of the “death's head moth” predominately through the movie suggests this. Clarice Starling is changing from a trainee at the FBI academy to a full fledged agent. She wants to leave her vulnerable civilian identity and become a strong authority figure. Her false hope is that after the change, she will be able to escape her own childhood trauma. Buffalo Bill is trying to change his sex. However, Hannibal Lecter assures us that his problems are much deeper and that Bill isn't even trans at all. Lecter is the only major character who knows himself. While he doesn't have any delusions about who he is, his game is deception. I'm not sure that I would call his story arc a metamorphosis in the same sense as with Bill and Clarice, but you could suggest that he moves from being a complete psychopath at the beginning of the movie to someone who at least has some morals by the end – after all, he does help the FBI catch Bill.

Also, like all good horror movies, Silence of the Lambs plays on the viewers expectations. It's generally taken as a given that when a movie stars a pretty woman as the protagonist, that she is going to be alive when the credits role. It never really feels like that's a given here though. Part of this is because Jodie Foster did an amazing job balancing strength and vulnerability, but Demme also puts this character through the ringer. I think the moment that this is the most apparent is when Starling is leaving her first interview with Lecter and Miggs throws semen on her and all the other inmates freak out. Even though there is no threat of physical danger here, the scene manages to be incredibly upsetting and unsettling.

The crime spree that Bill is in the middle of is so appallingly horrific that it would be unbelievable if not for the fact that it was based on actual cases. Demme deftly works around showing us any of the fantastic gore that this suggests though. We never see Bill's suit except in the background of a shot. The autopsy scene is very unnerving if only because Demme leaves the grizzliest aspects to our imaginations. That's not even to mention the oddly Gothic and terrifyingly suspenseful climax. In it, Bill stalks Clarice through his darkened basement. He is wearing night vision goggles and we can see Clarice fumbling around in the dark as Bill slowly advances. No matter how many times I see this scene, it makes my blood crawl.

Watching this movie when I was younger, I was always the most interested in Hannibal Lecter. His intellectual prowess and amorality are very fascinating. I don't know if it's the passage of time, or the fact that the Hannibal character has essentially become a parody in the superfluous sequels, but that fascination was almost completely missing this time around. I thought that Clarice was a much more interesting character. I found myself really connecting with this odd and horrible task that she was given of interviewing a serial killer. In my professional life, I've sat across the table from killers (no one of Lecter's magnitude) and it's never easy. The fact that Lecter will only give clues to Clarice after she reveals information about her personal life is compelling. She wants to save a young woman's life, but she has to cross an impossible line to do it. In some sense, it's the emotional equivalent of a cop going to the absolute lengths to get his man. Unlike jumping through explosions whilst shooting two handguns though, it takes real courage.