The Silence of the Lambs Review
Director Jonathan Demme died on the 26th April 2017, a sad loss to cinema one whose work in film was vivid, rich and unpredictable. His last, Ricki and the Flash (2015), was an oddity, but no-one could accuse it of being boring. 2008’s Rachel Getting Married on the other hand was an unmitigated success, giving Anne Hathaway her best dramatic role yet. And a few years before that, he directed a solid, entertaining remake of The Manchurian Candidate. His work continued to be relevant, even if he wasn’t so invested in producing behemoths like Philadelphia (1993) or The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the latter of which is being re-released this week as part of the BFI’s Thriller season.
His aesthetic was similar to that of Denis Villeneuve, who shares the same consistency in focus and claustrophobic characterisation that was a speciality of Demme’s. Sicario (2015) touches on many similar methods and shares a similar female lead and in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, a welcome propensity for indulgent showboating too. If only Francis Ford Coppola could have achieved such balance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). As it is, this is Demme’s modern Gothic retelling of the Dracula legend, more so than Thomas Harris’ book on which the film is based. Harris’ version is more satirical than you might expect.
The Silence of the Lambs is still a film of remarkable power and intensity, undiminished 26 years on from its initial release. It’s disturbing on several layers and it doesn’t matter if anti-villain Lector is in a cage or strapped up; he’s never not in control of those around him or of us, the poor audience. He is bloody terrifying, not given to a single moment of modesty or self-gratification, which just makes him worse. About two thirds into the film there is a rather contrived, almost pantomime Grand Guignol scene of brutality where Hannibal the Cannibal cuts loose in breathtaking fashion. An opera of violence in two distinct acts, and what sticks in the memory is his impassive face. He just doesn’t give a damn and he has all the time in the world. Away from Lector’s ostensibly impromptu and fanciful stage-cage, the world is realistic and finely detailed; note in particular Clarice’s quiet visit to a murder victim’s bedroom or Buffalo Bill’s horrific lair.
A popular question amongst film nerds asks, which Hannibal Lector do you prefer? Hopkins, or the quiet power of Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), the first version of Red Dragon (2002). It doesn’t matter because the films are so different they aren’t interchangeable. The stories are similar: Lector teasing the visiting detective who needs to court the killer’s favour to catch the more pressing threat, but the relationship is very different. What’s important is that despite seemingly having free rein to chew scenery as well as other cast members, Anthony Hopkins is only part of the spell of the film. His performance is magnificent, but it is weaved into the narrative, controlled perfectly by Demme’s intelligent direction and matched, blow for blow, by Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, a much more introspective role.
The scenes with them together are fantastic, challenging what cinema can be; after all, they are nothing more than two-hander doctor-patient conversations and yet, as Lector draws Clarice into memory segues, where the secret of the title hides, the tension is seductive, the mise-en-scène masterful. Hopkin’s silky, mocking voice is tempered by the delicate tremor in Foster’s, and the scenes are especially noteworthy for the audacious editing and closest of close-ups on faces that stare directly into the camera, directly into us. Only rarely do they share the frame with each other. It should be jarring and, instead, the opposite is true. Demme’s Philadelphia has a similar technique, albeit with less of a horror sensibility.
The Silence of the Lambs was just the third film to win all five of the big Academy Awards. It was a fairly lean year with only JFK standing out as a similar prestige picture. Robert De Niro’s Max Cady from Cape Fear was a brilliant monster, but Hannibal could quite literally eat him for breakfast. Still, time has proven those awards were thoroughly deserved and few films have tackled a similar approach so successfully since. Even David Fincher’s superb Seven (1995) pales against it; in fact, it couldn’t exist without it. Lector is the grandaddy of Fincher’s antagonists and the influence is obvious. Ultimately, Thomas Harris’ original plot has a vein of substance and realism that gets under the skin more than Fincher’s angry parable of shock.
”Your anagrams are showing", Starling tells Lector late in the story, the construction of which is delightful, a masterpiece of style over substance, at least in the plot. The story is driven by the investigation into Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill, a terrific character, but docile in terms of narrative. We only see him when Clarice has teased another clue from Lector and even the memorable finale is a double-bluff. Meanwhile, we’re distracted by the rhythm of the film; Howard Shore’s disquieting, mournful theme tied to a sound design that ticks like a metronome, a camera that glides with precision and a gorgeously muted autumnal colour scheme. The sense of dread can be suffocating. This is no mere genre exercise though and there are reasons that the film is entered into the Library of Congress, an honour reserved for culturally significant work.
The substance of the film is in Jodie Foster’s Clarice, one of cinema’s great female characters. She could not be more different to the dangerous Lector, but she reflects his situation and power nonetheless, as a woman in a man’s world. Starling cannot help but be intrigued by this particular man who seems genuinely interested in who she is. "The world is more interesting with you in it", he will tell her. The layers of Clarice Starling are many and they are uncovered gradually, no more effective than in the autopsy scene, perhaps the best in the film, maybe the finest of both Foster and Demme’s careers. The staging of the scene and Starling’s place within it is brilliant, especially as control delicately shifts to the out-numbered female agent. There are just two girls in the room and one of them is dead, but Clarice will not allow either of them to be dismissed by the range of blank, judgemental male faces. A literal representation of the male gaze, perhaps? There is no clunky romantic sub-plot (in fact, there is an insinuation that Starling is gay, though if it is there, it is barely a footnote). Ted Tally’s screenplay is ambitious and has the courage to bury the agenda, but it’s there, and drawn out beautifully. Scott Glenn's FBI boss is a curious part of this; the relationship with Clarice is as interesting as the one she has with Lector in some ways. Ok, not the really fun, he-might-try-and-chew-your-face way that the thriller needs, but this is why the film stands as something more thoughtful. It's a precise drama that happens to have a maniac distracting you.
The confidence on display by all involved in The Silence of the Lambs is impressive, but ultimately, this is Jonathan Demme’s film. His ability to shift tone throughout is wonderful, from the fine, emotional grace notes of Clarice Starling’s world to the grand displays of Hannibal Lector or the clumsier efforts of his sort-of-protégé Buffalo Bill. The film builds to a crescendo, an indulgent denouement that doesn’t lose focus of the less obvious themes. The sequels have failed to capitalise on the success of this or Manhunter for that matter. Perhaps because Lector is more threatening when caged.