My client was adamant. I knew what he meant. I was repulsed by the idea, myself. After all, it was based on a novel by Thomas Harris, the most ghoulish and cruelest of thriller writers. I'd read "Black Sunday" and it had an image I wish I could sand-paper out of my mind. I'd read "Red Dragon" (and seen it's Michael Mann movie adaptation, Manhunter), but I hadn't read "The Silence of the Lambs." After "Red Dragon" I swore off his novels. Harris went places I just didn't want to go...ever...not even in a pulp entertainment.
But the "buzz" about The Silence of the Lambs was so good, I had to go. My wife didn't want to see it ("UH-uh"). But a female colleague heard I was going (and her husband was "in no way" going to see it), so we agreed to meet up at the theater—almost like a dare—and satisfy our morbid personalities.
See, I'd seen Manhunter (starring pre-"CSI" William Petersen and Joan Allen), and the most intriguing thing about it was the introduction of a character named Dr. Hannibal Lecter* (played in Manhunter by Brian Cox). Lecter was an über-villain, like Dr. Mabuse. An insane genius psychiatrist, far more twisted than his clients, and he seemed unstoppable, uncontainable. Indeed, he was portrayed as a criminal so dangerous, he was kept in an impenetrable transparent cage of perspex. Cox played him agitated, and as a cannibal, he perpetually chewed gum, as if to satisfy a craving (or to keep his jaw strong).
A study in contrasts: Brian Cox (left) and Anthony Hopkins (below) as their respective Lecters
Anthony Hopkins famously played him in The Silence of the Lambs as an unblinking, supremely confident being of stillness. When we first see him (after an extended build-up talking about how dangerous he is), the camera slides him into view—and he's already waiting for us. That's a bravura move (done in silence, purely visually, pure cinema) in collaboration between Hopkins and director Jonathan Demme (who has never been so "to-the-bone" instinctual in his set-ups). Our first sight of Hopkins is a shock; he's not doing anything. Nor does he have to. In a dungeon-cage with a tranparent front (not bars, as they're too penetrable, but more like a zoo for observation), he still is in control of the situation and knows it, and his "laser-like intellect" has already begun profiling his prey, FBI Agent Clarice Starling (a bird's name, indicative of small, tremulous life), played by a subtly vibrating Jodie Foster (who's brilliant).
This is a horror movie. And the best horror movies don't just scare us. They touch a nerve, grab on tight and slither up into our brains and take root, never leaving us. They know what scares us, right down to the DNA in our collective alligator brains, and individually to our unbidden (but specially created) nightmares. And like Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs serves up one of the special horrors to our conqueror species: fear of being eaten...consumed. It's not just the dying and the reduction to meat, but it's taking away ourselves, our "souls," our specialness and uniqueness (like Gene Hackman's Sheriff in Unforgiven blurting down the echoing cave of a gun-barrel: "I was building a HOUSE!"). "Deserves got nothing to do with it."
And that's a horror. A true horror. A viscerally twisting fear of humankind, that we don't matter, everything that we are, that we do, can't hold off Death. Any Death. Every "snuff" makes us just dust in the wind. And everything we are amounts to nothing. "Tell her to paint an inch thick. To this favour, she must come."
"Make her laugh at that."
Sure, it's a horror movie. But becoming carrion is one thing. This is about skin-suits. Bad enough to be turned into a meal, yes. But apparel?
So, that's the reason so many people might NOT want to go see The Silence of the Lambs. What is there, of such value, to see it? To face your fears and walk into the darkened theater to face these horrors?
There is a subtle sub-text in the film and a not-so-subtle-visual one. One of the travails of Agent Starling is to go through her rigorous FBI training, the obstacles, the paths, includes making her way through a traditional world (and institutuion) of men. She is often under-estimated (except by, of all people, Lecter, who is intrigued and challenged by her: "People will say we're in love" is his witty reversal on it) and must point out to the officious males she's dealing with (and it is dealing) that they are treating her in a subordinate manner ("You know, we get a lot of detectives here, but I must say I can't ever remember one as attractive."), even though she calls everyone—her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), Lecter, even the serial killer she's seeking (the terrific Ted Levine, whose brave work in this film should never be unacknowledged in any review) "sir."
Foster's Starling is a victim, too, although she won't succumb to victimization. She fights it. And she fights the battle for the women whose lives have been lost through the pathological extension of that subjugation, and, with her work, might be saved. Reduction of the human being is the tough theme that runs through The Silence of the Lambs, and it is perpetrated by serial killers and officials alike, anyone who assumes more authority than they are due. Or more superiority than they deserve. We all covet that to some degree. Look in the mirror.
What looks back?
"The eyes are the window to the Soul" they say (although it's difficult to trace who originally said it). And director Demme makes sure we see them, both eyes and souls. Frequently, even in conversations, he will photograph the actors looking straight on, their eyes on a direct axis with the center of the camera lens (and thus, the audience). A lot of directors do that (Spike Lee and Woody Allen, for instances), but more often than not, those uses are to have the characters speak directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall between player and played. Not Demme (and this is what makes Silence unique). Whole conversations happen, with the actors looking out at us, as if we are the ones having the conversation—we connect with them, those flickering phantoms on the screen, making them more than casual phantoms, the ones we merely observe as if they were any passer-by on the street. We look into those windows, see the Souls (even those of the Soulless) and immediately those beings have value and worth, not just victims of our gaze, but true intimates, more than the mere shells that envelop their spirits.
And this is what separates The Silence of the Lambs from the many serial-killer/slasher movies that stalk through the genre—separates it a full 180° from the other films, in fact. So many of those use the POV subjective shot of the killer observing and hunting its prey (and Demme uses it, too, in the nerve-jangling final confrontation between Starling and "Buffalo" Bill). So many used it, in fact, that it became a cliché of the type, putting us in the uncomfortable position of seeing the world through the victimizer's vision, rather than the victim's—the hunter's, rather than the hunted's—accompanied by the rasping inhuman breath of the coveting, rather than the pleadings of the coveted. "The Silence of the Lambs" breathes new life into the form, elevating the victim, the genre...and us. It gives value to the human being, and in so doing, raises itself up, as well.
"So," the client began tentatively. "I went to go see Silence of the Lambs...
"And?" I offered. "Wha'd ya think?"
He blurted. "Ya know, that was a REALLY GOOD movie."
Yes, it is. Still is. Repulsive, still, certainly. But a great movie.
And it still has the distinction of being the only horror movie to win the Best Picture Oscar, and, even rarer, to win the Big Five categories (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), all deservedly so.
* In Mann's film, he's Hannibal Lecktor, a more oral-associated mad scientist name.