Classic Film Review: ‘The Silence of the Lambs’
The Silence of the Lambs is a psychological thriller of the highest caliber. There hasn’t been another thriller made since its release that holds the same importance while simultaneously executing the genre as perfectly as the film does, with the exception of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It’s rare to find a film that expresses the importance of psychology, feminism, and will power while also maintaining a nicely paced story at the same time, which is why The Silence of the Lambs is such an important, distinctive film.
The film belongs to Jodie Foster, who plays FBI Trainee Clarice Starling, and Anthony Hopkins, who portrays the charismatic, incarcerated serial killer, Hannibal Lecter. Clarice must confide in Dr. Lecter to gain a better insight into the mind of a different serial killer, who kills, then skins his victims, properly dubbed “Buffalo Bill”. It’s a race against the clock as Clarice must gain Dr. Lecter’s trust in order for him to give any information away about Buffalo Bill.
Many people who watch the film nowadays don’t realize the impact it had on feminism in film. Clarice Starling was arguably the first strong, independent woman lead character who didn’t rely on masculine help in her investigations (that’s excluding Hannibal’s help, of course). Ellen Ripley of the Alien franchise had her fair share of independence, but she still ends up relying several times on men, or robots. It was the same issue with every other woman lead, until The Silence of the Lambs was written. We can thank Thomas Harris for today’s strong women leads, because without Clarice Starling, women would still be secondary characters in stories and there wouldn’t be such a thing as Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or The Bride from Kill Bill.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film, though, is its serial killing characters. The concept of using a serial killer to catch another serial killer is brilliant, but that’s not the half of it. The two serial killers of the film are what make the concept so intriguing, simply because of how they contradict each other. One serial killer is disgusting and repulsive and the other is sophisticated and mysterious, however they’re both equally disturbing characters.
Before writing his novel, Thomas Harris researched three separate serial killers: Ed Gein (the inspiration of Psycho), who robbed graves and created furniture for his living room out of skin and bones, claiming his mother (whom he had killed) was making him do it; Ted Bundy, who lured in his prey through sympathy, capitalizing on the nurturing personalities of women by acting like a cripple, would kidnap, rape, and kill them (all 50 of them); and finally, Gary Heidnik, who kept six women in his basement as prisoners, occasionally raping and tormenting them whenever he pleased.
Thomas Harris combined these serial killers together to create Jame Gumb, or Buffalo Bill. The character of Gumb caused a giant spark of controversy in the gay community. Many homosexuals protested the film for its portrayal of the gay character, however they failed to realize that Jame Gumb isn’t gay. Gumb was a sick individual suffering an identity crisis and who craved power. In Harris’ novel, we discover that when Gumb was a child, he was abandoned by his mother, an alcoholic prostitute, and was left with abusive foster parents. To me, this signifies the root of his evil. When he was abandoned by his mother, he realized the profound power that women have over men, causing him to want, and almost need that power. This also explains the reasoning behind why he sews together a “woman suit” from his victim’s skins. He’s not a transvestite, he’s not a transsexual, and he’s not gay. He simply craves the power that women possess over men. And is it any coincidence that the infamous “tuck scene” features a song performed by Q Lazzarus, who is a woman, but is oftentimes mistaken as a man due to her husky voice?
While Gumb is the revolting serial killer of Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter serves as his counterpart. Lecter is smooth, charismatic, and smart. He’s a brilliant psychiatrist and a cannibalistic serial killer who has been locked up in a mental institution for years. Lecter was based off a series of murders that Harris had covered when he was a crime reporter in the last 60′s. He’s portrayed by the great Anthony Hopkins, who was virtually unknown to American audiences at the time, other than his appearance in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Hopkins gives the performance of his career as Lecter, bringing just the right charisma that the audience isn’t expecting.
Perhaps the reason why everyone finds the character of Lecter so enigmatic is because of the hype used before he’s revealed. We hear horrific stories about him as he’s called a monster by some, and an animal by others. As we learn all the rules of the institution (Don’t touch the glass, don’t approach the glass, etc.), Clarice is released into the cell block. The camera pans as we walk with her, and the juxtaposition of two completely insane criminals sitting in their cells makes us think Lecter is going to be even worse than we think. However, when he’s revealed, he’s a very clean, proper, freakishly intuitive character who doesn’t seem like a serial killer at all. But then there’s the eeriness of Hopkins’ portrayal that lets us know he’s dangerous. However, just like Clarice, we’re still fascinated by him and we keep wanting to visit him just to hear what he has to say.
So, what we have is Clarice Starling, the spark that arguably started independent feminine heroism in film; Jame Gumb, the disturbingly creepy serial killer, played brilliantly by Ted Levine; and Hannibal Lecter, the enigmatic cannibal psychiatrist portrayed by the great Anthony Hopkins. When you put these three excellently written characters together, along with the stellar cast that portrays each character and Jonathon Demme’s beautiful directing skills, you get one of the greatest films of all time, The Silence of the Lambs.
I give it a 10/10.