The Silence Of The Lambs is an iconic piece of cinema. Having won 5 Oscars in the year of its release, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Actor, it has been lauded by critics and cinema-goers alike for decades. Often cited as inspiration for writers and directors, parodied and copied across film and TV, The Silence Of The Lambs has permeated so much of popular culture since its release that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how much of a masterful film it is.
Often taking place in people’s minds as a film about horror icon Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) due to the power of his performance, a lot of people can be forgiven for forgetting that this film is about Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) first and foremost. Yes, Lecter is a major part of this film, if not in time on screen than by what his presence does for the characters and the story, but he’s a secondary character there to drive forward Clarice’s narrative.
Clarice Starling is an important figure for many reasons, not least because she’s a very real role model for women. Fiction has a lot of strong female heroes, film especially, but whilst people like Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley are bad arse for facing horrific monsters and becoming action heroes, Clarice Starling does things within the realm of the real world. She faces sexism at work, she has to prove herself time and time again, she has to fight to make herself heard, she has to overcome the mundane even in the quest to overcome the horrific.
Over the course of the film we see that Clarice is less physically intimidating than her fellow FBI colleagues, beautifully illustrated in her early scene when she’s in an elevator surrounded by large men, yet she’s shown tackling assault courses, she’s on the shooting range, and she defeats the films antagonist singlehandedly. She’s smart, so smart that she’s brought on to an active case for her insights before she’d even graduated. She manages to hold her own with Hannibal Lecter, no small feat, whilst still able to acknowledge her vulnerabilities and past trauma, using it to make her stronger in his presence rather than weaker.
Clarice Starling drives the film forward. She’s the character we enter into this world of cannibals and murderers with. She guides us through this mystery and brings us out alive at the other side. It’s no wonder that she’s gone on to inspire such strong female icons like Dana Scully from The X-Files.
Despite only being on screen for a scant 20 minutes, Hannibal Lecter is as much an important part of the story as Clarice, and the relationship that develops between the two of them in intensely interesting. The two of them are similar in a lot of ways, which makes the respect they build for each other all the more convincing. Similar childhood trauma (clarice having lost both parents and Lecter a victim of abuse), both feeling like they lack the power they should have (Clarice struggling in a workplace filled with sexism and Lecter in a literal cell), both highly intelligent but often ignored (Clarice for being a woman and Lecter because he’s seen as nothing more than a mad man).
The relationship between the two of them that forms slowly over the course of the film is one built on respect. Clarice shows him respect throughout, at first because she believes that it is the best way to get what she wants from him, but by the end because she truly understands that he’s an intelligent man that deserves respect even in spite of his past crimes.
Hopkins manages to make a character that should be detestable quite likeable. He plays the part in such a way that you feel, like clarice, that you come to understand him in some ways. He eats people yes, but he’s not a ‘monster’ in the traditional sense. Clarice treats him with respect, as such you believe her when she states that she doesn’t think Lecter will come after her at the end of the film. A sentiment that is echoed in Hannibal by Barney, for similar reasons. Lecter is a killer, but he doesn’t kill without rhyme or reason, and if you treat him well and prove to be interesting he’d probably end up becoming a good friend. It’s this kind of complexity and character that is often mission from films, and from antagonists especially, that makes Hannibal Lecter stand out as something different.
Whilst Lecter manages to be charming and polite to the point of being friendly, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is chilling and disturbing. The role of Buffalo Bill has been criticised over the years as being homophobic and transphobic, with many people upset with the portrayal of him as both bisexual and transgender, something that has resulted in both the writer and director refuting in interviews, clarifying that the character is neither of these things; despite this, he is easily one of the most disturbing killers in film.
He comes across as loathsome in every scene he’s in. He comes across as less a ‘monster’ in the grand sense that Lecter does, but more a pathetic and failed man. This is part of what makes him so disturbing. Lecter is the embodiment of a fictional serial killer, whilst Bill feels a lot more real, and thus, frightening. There are a lot more people in the real world like Buffalo Bill than Hannibal Lecter, and that makes him scary.
The scenes he’s in become disturbing not just because we know what will befall his victims, but because he plays them in such bizarre and disturbing ways. He’s so upsetting that by the time Clarice is able to finally dispatch him it comes as a sense of relief for the audience.
The Silence Of The Lambs is a film that gets under the skin. It doesn’t present jump scares or masses of gore, because it knows that the slow buildup of tension is more important. It conveys more horror with a girl trapped in a well than any film with ghosts or aliens could. Presenting very real fears and horrors in a way that will stick with you, and providing two of cinemas greatest characters, The Silence Of The Lambs deserves it’s place at the peak of filmmaking.
The Silence of the Lambs is now on limited re-release across the UK.