Warning: There are potential spoilers ahead (thanks MacTingz)
Until last Saturday night I hadn’t seen The Silence of the Lambs in at least a decade. My uncle, who foolishly took me to countless films as a child, especially R-rated films unsuitable for adolescents, introduced me to Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel, bringing me to the local multiplex, buying me popcorn, and establishing my familiarity with transsexuals and serial killers. I was probably nine or ten years old. Luckily my parents didn’t care and even encouraged my viewing of subversive films and books – they were hippies.
What I took away from the film as a youth was that Hannibal Lecter was a brilliant psychopath, Jodie Foster a confident FBI agent, and Buffalo Bill liked pretending he had a vagina. My interpretations from childhood don’t reflect what I saw now: a story about a very green and inexperienced graduate student and her indoctrination into a disturbing and difficult world. Foster’s performance caught my attention on this viewing and I still see her as confident, although that confidence is a show, hiding a scared exterior. Years of studiousness don’t prepare her for the reality of her career choice; engaging with Lecter and tracking the vicious Buffalo Bill is far different than textbook examinations. Like the allegorical lambs from the film, Starling (her name itself an allusion to gregarious birds) is now separated from the pack, moving through experiences unaccompanied and finding her own voice; she’s also avoiding slaughter (literally and figuratively as well as physically and psychically).
Demme’s film contains many tropes from late ‘80s/early ‘90s crime films – reminiscent of John Grisham adaptations – but where The Silence of the Lambs differs from these stereotypical works is the juxtaposition between crime story and examination of a serial killers abode. While the narrative informs the audience they’re entering Buffalo Bill’s world (characters discussing him right before a scene’s end), the small, yet vile, world he inhabits is grim and haunting. Of course Starling and other FBI agents are examining extremely violent cases and evidence but they approach it from a peace officer’s perspective, looking objectively at the evidence; by entering Bill’s space a subjective view of a serial killer emerges, complete with his motives, behavior, and modus operandi. These scenes give the audience both perspectives of the film’s actions, keeping the viewer one step ahead of the agents, yet they present the dismal realities they are investigating. This happens frequently in these kinds of films but The Silence of the Lambs differs in its adherence to brutality, sadism, and a killer whose actions are so bizarre and incomprehensible.
I completely understand why Foster won Best Actress that year, since her performance exhibits the marks of a young woman entering a brutal world. It’s also a world where patriarchy reigns and women have to battle against male domination for a voice and place. I believe the film has a feminist theme running throughout – Starling’s struggles, Bill’s subjugation of women while also coveting them, and especially the looks men in law enforcement (both FBI recruits and local police) give Starling – and demonstrates the paradigm change happening in early ‘90s America, a time when many chauvinistic men of yesterday were dying off and a new outlook continued its move forward. Of course women are still struggling against male repression but Foster’s occupation 50 years earlier seems uncommon. I personally enjoy Demme’s film exhibiting strong women who also demonstrate genuine emotional responses to their interactions. In many movies of the same genre with male leads these men usually demonstrate a tough exterior, which seems false; Foster is capable of embracing her humanity in an honest fashion, making the character believable.
Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, another Academy Award winning performance, demonstrates a brilliant man capable of disgusting acts. A scene where he bludgeons a man with a baton is quite chilling, where Lecter’s face seems devoid of any emotion – like he’s acting solely on impulse and instinct. Like Heidegger’s assertion, “the artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work,” Lecter’s actions are more than just his violent impulses; they are Lecter’s channeling of the Beingness of humanity into what he perceives as his art – murder. The look on his face as he batters the guard is vacant and he has reached what Gary Peters calls in his book The Philosophy of Improvisation, “being in the there;” a place where the artist is on autopilot and the artist gives way to the production of their craft, a conduit to creativity. For Lecter, a well versed, gifted artist and scholar, murder and mutilation is just as important as his drawings (which appear periodically throughout the film).
This brings us to Buffalo Bill, the focus of everybody’s attention in The Silence of the Lambs. He’s a sadistic transsexual man yearning for a different gender role, killing women and using their skin to create a female suit. It’s suggested throughout the film Bill was denied a sex change operation from the various medical institutions capable of such procedures and this rejection crafted him into a methodical murder machine. I’m not really capable of psychoanalyzing Buffalo Bill but I can safely say the character is absolutely insane, canalling his angers into a cheap substitution for his thwarted desires. Starling describes him as physically powerful man, capable of forceful sadism and combining this with his newfound taste for slaughter he’s a deadly foe. Demme’s scenes of Bill’s sanctuary are definitely the most frightening of the film, especially his infamous dance scene where he applies make-up, says, “I’d fuck me so hard,” and dances around to Q. Lazzarus’ excellent song Goodbye Horses after tucking his penis between his legs, simulating himself as a woman for a video camera. The way Demme crafts this scene, focusing solely on Bill’s mouth for his dialogue and almost drowning it in Lazzarus’ song, is brilliant; it forces the audience to engage entirely in Bill’s fantasies and there’s no escape – he commands the entire shot.
Other moments in Bill’s basement refuge include treating his hostage as an object: “It places the lotion in the basket.” Only a brief glimpse into the exterior, upstairs portion of Bill’s home reveals that he places no importance on this aspect of his appearance and instead focuses solely on the disturbing world he created in the basement – the kitchen is in shambles and covered in dust, revealing a lack of concern and interest in any other aspect of his life except for his murderous exploits. Lecter’s assertion that Bill “covets,” is aptly examined when investigating both layers of his domicile – the unkempt exterior version and the elaborate world he hides away in, killing and sewing together pieces of overweight women he tortures, kills, and eventually dumps in various rivers. Everything but his desires are objects and unless they serve a function and further his agenda they’re useless. Finding any commonality, at least for me, is impossible and it’s possible the only person who can relate to Bill is another serial killer.
I feel The Silence of the Lambs is an excellent character study, using common tropes to lure people into a severely disturbing story about desire – Hannibal desires freedom and carnage, Starling desires promotion and justice, and Bill desires a new identity, one he’s incapable of gaining. They all approach desire very differently and implement different methods and schemas but ultimately their wants all approach desire from various human perspectives. In essence, all three people exhibit different characteristics of aspiration, examining them from an American perspective. There are obvious threads in this film discussing American social conventions and whether they’re both the call and response to the actions in the film but I feel an examination of those is lengthy and requires additional theoretical research and contemplation. However, using sexual reassignment as the impetus for Bill’s murders does question gender roles in American culture – how transgender or homosexual (it is not explained whether Bill is homosexual or not) citizens react to the social conventions surrounding them. Its possible condemnation of what’s perceived as sexually deviant actions and desires provided the momentum for murder and therefore Bill’s actions are not singular but the consequences of a society where divergence is a vice and results in ostracization.
Here’s the trailer for the film
Because I love this song, here is Q. Lazzarus’ Goodbye Horses