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“People will say we’re in love,” Hannibal Lecter tells Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. The movie that made these characters into American icons turned 25 years old this February. More specifically, it celebrated its birthday on Valentine’s Day, the almost unbelievably ballsy release date director Jonathan Demme chose for his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel. Maybe it’s because of this particularly suggestive anniversary date that people really have spent the last 25 years saying exactly what Hannibal Lecter once predicted. In any case, it’s a shame that Hannibal and Clarice’s story has become—with Thomas Harris’ 1999 novel Hannibal and Ridley Scott’s 2001 film adaptation—something of a Byronic romance. In Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, we find two characters searching for something far more elusive than limerence and luxury: mutual respect.
To say that their story still maintains its unique power 25 years later would only be stretching the truth in one respect. “Their” story has always been Clarice’s story alone. As Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins has 16 minutes of screen time, making his performance the shortest ever to garner a Best Actor Academy Award. As Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster appears in almost every scene. She won her own Academy Award for the role, and in her acceptance speech—which she delivered in pale pink suit that made her red AIDS ribbon all the more visible to viewers at home—Foster dedicated her Oscar “to all of the women who came before me who never had the chances that I’ve had, [to] the survivors and the pioneers and the outcasts… my blood, my tradition.”
“The thing I really love about Clarice Starling,” Foster said, a few months after the film’s release, “Is that this may be one of the first times that I have seen a female hero that is not a female-steroid version of Arnold Schwarzenegger… Clarice is very competent and she is very human. She combats the villain with her emotionality, [her] intuition, her frailty and vulnerability. I don’t think there has ever been a female hero like that.”
From the first frame, The Silence of the Lambs toyed with viewers’ expectations that this kind of movie only had room for two versions of female protagonists: ones who were masculine and competent and ones who were feminine and soon-to-be dead. We open on Clarice as she runs through the FBI Academy’s obstacle course. We see her pain, her struggle, and her sweat. We hear her panting so clearly that her breath eclipses our own. She darts through the forest, ducking under branches and pushing herself beyond exhaustion. In any other movie of this era—in any one of the hundreds of slasher movies that populated the previous decade, and turned the genre’s tropes into a kind of catechism—Clarice would be running away from someone. Instead, she is running toward something: toward her goals, toward her dreams, and toward the life she will save.
After The Silence of the Lambs was released to both commercial success and near-unanimous critical acclaim, people developed a habit of describing it as anything other than “horror,” classifying it instead as a thriller, a police procedural, or even an action movie. The Silence of the Lambs does put pressure on the horror genre’s boundaries, but more than anything, it challenges people’s perceptions of the genre by being undeniably good.
The Silence of the Lambs is not just a horror movie but a study of horror. The story, its characters, and even its close-ups and camera angles are all permeated with fear. Clarice is afraid that she will not be able to locate the serial killer known to the public as Buffalo Bill in time to save his latest abductee, Catherine Martin. Catherine is afraid for her life. Buffalo Bill, who abducts women so he can use their skins to sew what Clarice calls “a woman suit,” is afraid of having to go on living without taking refuge in a new self. And Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer whose cell Clarice visits so she can gather his insights on Buffalo Bill, is afraid, too. He is afraid that Clarice’s goodness might actually be real: something he cannot break down into greed or vanity or revenge disguised as altruism; something he cannot understand.
Ultimately, this is exactly what happens. In the characters’ final scene together, Hannibal tries and fails to reduce Clarice’s heroism to a set of influences and traumas. He is forced to reckon with the fact that she is, simply, good. Hannibal and Clarice’s only moment of contact—in which Clarice disobeys her mentor’s strict orders and lets Hannibal hand a file to her through the bars of his cell, in the process giving him to the chance to touch her—is depicted in a shot reminiscent of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. We get the sense, though, that Hannibal is not imputing some godly power to a weak human, but is hoping to experience the power that belongs to Clarice.
Before he sends her into the unknown, Clarice’s mentor Jack Crawford also warns her not to tell Hannibal anything personal. The implicit message underlying this order is that she should not engage with him on a human level. Clarice disobeys him on both counts. Crawford’s ominous warning—“You don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head”—does not apply to her, and she knows it.
Dr. Chilton, the psychiatrist whose institution is charged with studying and imprisoning Hannibal, takes an even more disturbing view of Clarice’s visit. “Crawford’s very clever, isn’t he?” he says. In Chilton’s view, Crawford is “using” Clarice, sending Lecter “a pretty, young woman to turn him on.” As they descend to the basement cell where Hannibal is kept, Chilton tells Clarice, “I don’t believe Lecter’s even seen a woman in eight years… And are you ever his taste—so to speak.”
Jonathan Demme relied heavily on close-ups when he shot The Silence of the Lambs. The movie is astoundingly intimate, and does much of its work by showing us characters’ reactions, especially Clarice’s. Before we see what shocks or frightens or wounds Clarice—a school photo of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims, a body prepared for autopsy, the interior of Bill’s dungeon—we see Clarice’s reaction to it. Sometimes it seems that seeing what she’s reacting to is almost unnecessary, since her face tells us everything we need to know.
In framing these close-ups, however, Demme used another tactic, one that allows the viewer to see the world not just through Clarice’s eyes, but as her. When other characters address Clarice, they look straight at the camera, and at us. We feel their appraisal, their curiosity, their desire, their contempt. If the viewer isn’t familiar with the male gaze before they watch The Silence of the Lambs, the movie gives them the chance to experience it. It’s a way of looking that dovetails all too well with Chilton’s analysis of Clarice: that she is not a skilled investigator, but a sweet treat, ready to be consumed.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of male characters’ appraisal of Clarice—and their inability to believe that she will be of any use when it comes to questioning Hannibal Lecter—is visible not in The Silence of the Lambs, but in the movie that came before it. Michael Mann’s Manhunter is the first film adaptation of a Thomas Harris novel, in this case 1981’s Red Dragon, the book that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the American public.
Manhunter, which was released in 1986, is a strange movie to revisit, largely because it’s shot exactly like a very long, gory episode of Miami Vice, which Mann also produced. There’s something jarring about encountering Hannibal Lecter, a character we now see as a paragon of cruel dignity and old-world taste, housed in the same visual universe as Crockett and Tubbs. Aesthetics aside, however, Manhunter is worth watching mostly for what it almost does brilliantly. It’s a gaudy belly-flop of a movie in which Michael Mann tried to do things most other directors wouldn’t think to attempt: humanizing a serial killer, creating within him a fictional pathology that rings hauntingly true, and understanding why the work of hunting down that killer might force an investigator to flirt with not just danger, but insanity.
Manhunter’s hero, Will Graham, also has to interview Hannibal Lecter for his insights about an active serial killer. Visits with Hannibal send Will into panic attacks, but his attempts to access the active killer’s thoughts force him into an even darker place. Will wanders through crime scenes like a sleepwalker, grasping for some violence deep within himself, knowing that the only way to catch the killer is to find the part of him that is animated by the same need: to control women, to possess them, and finally to destroy them. For Will, solving the case means countenancing the violence inherent in patriarchal masculinity. It means not getting into a foreign mindset, but inhabiting the most dangerous end of a spectrum he knows all too well—and knowing that the spectrum he inhabits is capable of the violence he fears. To find the killer, he has to see himself clearly. The task nearly drives him insane.
The Silence of the Lambs takes place not long after the events of Manhunter. In Harris’ book, characters discuss how much Will Graham suffered when charged with the same task Clarice now must shoulder. The implicit suggestion, visible in Demme’s film, is that if a grown man couldn’t handle such an investigation, a “pretty, young woman” doesn’t stand a chance.
Of course, Clarice has none of the problems that Will Graham did. She knows what it is to be seen as an object. She knows what it is to dream of escape. She is just as intimate with patriarchal violence as Will Graham tried not to be, and it’s no great shock to her to see what cruelty men can be capable of. She isn’t distracted from her task by a need to deny or disavow the darkness her gender role can harbor. Instead, she uses her empathy with Buffalo Bill’s victims—including the lengths she knows women will go to in order to become, if not something other than an object, than at least a desired object—to find Buffalo Bill himself.
Perhaps the only element of The Silence of the Lambs that doesn’t stand the test of time is Buffalo Bill himself. The book’s author, Thomas Harris, seems to have tried to dodge the transphobia inherent in the character by having Hannibal claim he isn’t trans at all. “Billy’s not a transsexual,” Hannibal tells Clarice in the book. “But he thinks he is, he tries to be.” The exchange is repeated almost word for word in Demme’s film.
It’s a clumsy feint, and it doesn’t change the fact that Buffalo Bill is depicted as a character whose queerness is inextricably bound up in murderous desire.
In 1991, it was all too easy for viewers to believe that the same was true of all queer and trans citizens. But Thomas Harris’ need to make Buffalo Bill queer-but-not-really speaks to the same anxiety that dogged Will Graham. Buffalo Bill is dangerous not because he desires femininity, but because he sees women as objects, and torments them until he can strip them for parts that will aid his fantasies. He is dangerous, in other words, because he represents the worst violence patriarchal masculinity is capable of. It’s easy to imagine that, for Harris, coding Buffalo Bill as queer meant escaping the most frightening implications of his crimes.
“Brave Clarice,” Hannibal says at the end of the characters’ last meeting. It’s a tribute to The Silence of the Lambs’ rich ambiguities that the movie allows us to wonder whether Hannibal sees Clarice’s bravery with envy, knowing that it is something he will never experience. By the story’s end, we understand Clarice’s brand of bravery. We know that it comes not from an absence of fear, but from the ability to push through her terror, and to use every ounce of the strength and skill she does possess to save all those who cannot save themselves.
Twenty-five years later, it is still rare that we get the chance to encounter a heroine like Clarice—one who, as Jodie Foster put it, emerges victorious because of “her emotionality, [her] intuition, her frailty and vulnerability.” It is rare, in other words, for us to encounter a heroine who succeeds not in spite of the fact that she is a woman, but because of it. But The Silence of the Lambs still has the power to show us that such stories are possible, and to remind us just how powerful they are.
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