There are films that are indelible upon the soul.
Much like your first love, they make an impression that could never leave you. No matter if flashier or deeper loves come along, you still remember the ripples over your skin. The words still sinking to your depths like permanent ink. The fear, the feeling, the fascination…fingertips reach out to forge with your spirit. That unforgettable moment of absolute adoration.
I was fourteen years old when this happened to me. My mother had held back The Silence of the Lambs from me for a while, fearing that the psychological terror within would affect me. Eventually, on a small television in the living room, I was captivated by the unravelling and winding thriller. My mother was right, the film would affect me, just not in the way she expected.
From then, I was hooked – I watched the film so often that it became part of my character somehow. I knew (and still know,) all of the words. I consumed Red Dragon, Manhunter, and Hannibal with as much furore as I did The Silence of the Lambs. I even took my Dad on a tour of film locations when we visited Florence.
The film has never left my heart and mind since. Now at thirty years, it makes just as big of an impression as it did upon its first release, taking generations of audiences throughout the dungeon.
The Silence of the Lambs, in case you have not seen it, is adapted from a Thomas Harris book of the same name. It follows a young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster,) sent into interview the cannibal serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help solve a series of murders across America. When the killer, nicknamed Buffalo Bill, kidnaps the daughter of a Senator, it becomes a race against time. Soon, it is up to Clarice to play a cat and mouse mental game with Lecter to find the murderer
Anthony Hopkins is superb as Lecter, giving him a complex flair and manages to manipulate the room and all of those around him. Hopkins, who has a famously small screen time of sixteen minutes, terrifies. He is a mysterious murderer who enjoys the mind games that he plays and commands your attention, gleeful as he sips on everyone else’s mind and pain like a fine Chianti. His piercing metallic eyes really worm into your head. Lecter has been portrayed many times before and after Hopkins’ performance, most notably Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s stylish Manhunter (1986,) and most recently Mads Mikkelsen in Bryan Fuller’s critically acclaimed television series Hannibal. Yet Hopkins’ performances induces terror even thirty years after.
For a while, my obsession with The Silence of the Lambs revolved around Lecter. Certainly standard practice for an emo-centric teenager with the taste for the macabre. About a year ago, I watched the movie as an exhausted 30 something woman, plighted by the world, by life, and the pawing privilege of patriarchy. For the first time, I believe, I watched the film through the eyes of Clarice. In the examination room of a poor Buffalo Bill victim, I wound up crying.
Foster’s role as the head-strong trainee FBI agent could easily have been a one-note “tough” woman role. The kind of character who thinks like a man and talks man, practically spitting tobacco into the bin with a loud, sharp PUH-TING. However, similarly to how she is written in Harris’ books, Starling is much more than her fighting spirit and hard-work.
Instead, alongside Ted Tally’s glorious writing, Clarice Starling is a nuanced character. The brilliant Jodie Foster, who from a child has produced startling performances, interjects Clarice with such detailed understanding and empathy that it is hard not to feel the ebbs of sorrow and anguish within her. In the aforementioned scene, the particular scene, Starling is grappling with the pressures of the case, the memories of her father, and the words of Lecter wriggling within her mind. In this tiny funeral home, she finds herself face to face with the body of a victim. Overwhelmed by this, her chin clenches and her lip quivers, feeling a tirade of sadness for the dead girl in laying in front of her. This moment is a culmination of grief and heartache yet tells you so much about Starling’s motivations for being an FBI agent as she tries to catch a killer of women.
Though a tough watch, it is perhaps one of the best scenes in a film that has an abundance of them.
Foster’s Starling, an adept FBI trainee, navigates the rest of this world and murder case under the beady eyes of men who wish to kill or sleep with her. Their condescending view literally looks down on her and she has to either charm or challenge them. Actor Foster handles these multitudes of Starling with so much ease that it feels like she is a real person. She is honest, open, and hard-working with layers of emotion within. No wonder Lecter wishes to unravel her.
Director Demme and Tally weaved social issues into his horror tale. He subverts the eye to make you aware of the sexism faced by Clarice, Demme mastered the creeping mystery, the infamous killer, and the struggles of women in a delicate and uneasy balance. In the beginning shot, Demme cleverly puts Foster into a lift surrounded by tall, towering men who could eclipse her. Yet, as intended, Starling stands out. Strangely, The Silence of the Lambs feels like a feminist film and Demme never falters from keep the audience behind Clarice’s point of view.
On a note, the film’s handling for transgender people has as many detractors as it does celebrators. However, whilst it should also be met with scrutiny but you always get the sense that Demme tried here to be as sensitive as possible.
Jonathon Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is a masterpiece. It is truly magnificent adaptation from Harris’ popular book in order to create a terrifying movie. What Demme does here is give terrifying atmosphere to play eerie games on the audience, giving the film different levels of fright.
The score by Howard Shore turns haunting at the right moments; the tension builds until chills are creeping down your neck and sudden this blast of musical power drenches the screen in terror as a body is discovered. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto is swept in bleak and chilling colours and shots are panned and lethal, transitioning from an intense killer’s stare to an innocence unravelling as Clarice and Lecter spar off in an almost battle of wits and agendas. The film feels intense and yet also feels grounded in so much realism.
The Silence of the Lambs had, and still has, critical acclaim. The movie won the Big Five Academy Awards at the 64th ceremony: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is widely considered one of the best movies of all time.
For this 14-year-old, The Silence of the Lambs made the ultimate impression on me.
As the months and the years and the decades came for me, not once did the lambs stop screaming. And I hope they ever will.
What do you think of The Silence of the Lambs?