Depending on who you ask, people will argue over what genre The Silence of the Lambs falls into, whether it’s a psychological horror, or a crime thriller. There are good arguments for both categories, and reasons why it works as either. But one thing that most people will agree on is that thanks to the incredible direction from Jonathan Demme, and stellar performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, it’s a film that will go down as an all time great.
Based upon the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris, the story follows young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who’s pulled from her training by the head of the Behavioral Science Unit and is assigned to interview the notorious cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Clarice is being sent in to get Lecter’s insight that they believe might be able to assist with catching the killer known as Buffalo Bill; a killer who leaves his female victims partially skinned.
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When a senator’s daughter is the latest woman kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, Clarice must continue her interviews with Lecter, piecing together the small clues that he gives her in hopes of finding the killer before the senator’s daughter is killed. Clarice eventually figures out that Buffalo Bill knew his first victim and is able to track him down in time to stop him killing again. However, Lecter is able to mount a daring escape from his cell, and ends up free once again.
This was the second time a Hannibal Lecter book was adapted to the big screen, with the first novel in the series, Red Dragon,having been made into Manhunter in 1986. The film performed poorly at the box office, so when the time came to adapt the second book there were a number of changes behind the scenes, resulting in both a new director in Jonathan Demme, and a new Dr. Lecter, as original actor Brian Cox was replaced. These changes proved to be to the film’s benefit, as it quickly reached number one in the box office, staying there for several weeks.
The film quickly gained recognition in the media across dozens of reviews, with critics and the public enjoying the film for its slow burn of tension, the masterful performances from its leads, and its dramatic conclusion. This praise translated into even bigger gross, going on to earn $130 million; as well as five Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Since then the film has won several other awards, and frequently finds itself on numerous greatest film lists.
The Silence of the Lambs has become so popular and beloved over the years that it has become a piece of pop culture royalty, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of films and television shows parodying it. Even those who have never seen The Silence of the Lambs will know who Hannibal Lecter is, will recognise his iconic mask, and know the noise he makes in the infamous “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” scene. It’s become one of the most iconic pieces of film, and that’s something you can’t deny.
Despite the numerous accolades, I do feel that I need to address the LGBTQ+ elephant in the room, namely the negative impact the film has had on the transgender community. There has been a lot of discussion and discourse over the thirty years since the film came out, with a lot of criticism coming from the LGBTQ+ community because of the depiction of Buffalo Bill.
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Even though there’s a throwaway line in the film about Buffalo Bill not being a real transexual, but thinks he is, there’s no denying that he’s an incredibly queer coded villain, and one that plays on dangerous tropes of trans people being dangerous and mentally unstable. Even though Clarice and Hannibal spend time discussing how Bill isn’t trans, and director Demme has spoken about it and apologised more than once over the years, most people will remember the character as dancing around in women’s clothing and wanting to make a woman suit out of skin. As such, despite how well made this film is, how well received it is, and even how much people like it, it can’t be denied that it has done serious harm to a marginalised group.
I have always liked The Silence of the Lambs, and like parts of it to this day, but can’t ignore that thanks to the huge impact it has had it’s probably done some harm, and watching it now has become somewhat difficult. That being said, I will still enjoy watching Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster playing off each other in some of the best scenes in cinema history.
The Silence of the Lambs was released in the UK on 31st May 1991.