“Good evening, Clarice.” *shivers*
DIRECTED BY JONATHAN DEMME WRITTEN BY TED TALLY MUSIC BY HOWARD SHORE
STARRING JODIE FOSTER ANTHONY HOPKINS SCOTT GLENN TED LEVINE
cw: body horror, gore
A young FBI trainee named after a delicate bird enlists the help of a notorious cannibal psychologist in order to catch an active serial killer. This film is based on the book of the same name by Thomas Harris. Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster are incredible in their scenes together, Buffalo Bill is still problematic, and I finally know why the lambs are so quiet. Happy 30th Anniversary!
When I told my mom I was sitting down to watch The Silence of the Lambs, she simply said “let me know if you have nightmares,” and walked away. Her experience seeing this film in 1991 was vastly different than my experience watching it exactly thirty years later. The horror, gore, and unimaginable lack of humanity was a total shock to her system. While we both related to Clarice Starling, I did not find the skin-suit imagery as appalling. Nevertheless, this film was fantastic. The acting was superb, the direction was artful and purposeful, and the mystery at the center of the story had me on the edge of my seat.
I’m sure this was exceptionally bone-chilling when people saw it in theatres. However, there has been a shift over the years in what has become acceptable to show on television. Gore and bodily violence, like what we see in this film, has become normalized due in part to shows like American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones. After witnessing characters clearly inspired by Buffalo Bill, such as AHS’s Bloodyface, the gore didn’t seem as severe, but appropriate for the needs of the story. For example, Dr. Lecter could not have escaped from his cage in Memphis if not for his dawning of a guard’s face.
When Hannibal escapes from Memphis, he strings up another guard against the cage with his arms outstretched to look like a butterfly. There is a lot of symbolism in this film surrounding moths, butterflies, and transformation which make sense given how many characters undergo dramatic change in this film. Along with the vast amount of American flags and Tom Petty’s American Girl, Buffalo Bill prominently displays swastikas, Nazi propaganda, and conspiracy-minded artwork in his basement workspace. This kind of intense nationalism is rooted in misogyny and white supremacy.
Clarice Starling is the protagonist, a “good” character surrounded by other “good” characters: crime-solving members of the FBI. Through a male perspective, this might be a cut-and-dry case with the focus of the story put on the killer and Clarice might be seen as the token female agent. Instead, we are gifted with Clarice’s perspective and we are able to join her in her discomfort as men ogle her, flirt, and alienate her in professional settings. The point-of-view shot of wall-to-wall men surrounding Clarice is so beautifully done. In some ways, this shot echoes shots of Catherine in the well: a woman surrounded by misogyny. This sense of isolation and lack of understanding is not only present in Clarice, Catherine, and Hannibal, but Buffalo Bill as well.
The film posits that Buffalo Bill hates himself and his body. In addition, several members of the FBI and other investigators try to put labels on him so that they can understand him on their own terms. That is why they say he’s “not a transsexual”, he’s been in relationships with men, and he has applied and been rejected several times for “gender reassignment surgery”. There are several instances where they loosely throw around buzzwords related to his queerness so that the audience understands him better. However, by attempting to use such vocabulary, they actually diminish the audience’s understanding of him which had real-life consequences. The original 1991 audience that saw this film did not have the definitions of these complex words related to gender/sexual expression and so they all get lumped into “queer”. Buffalo Bill is queer and if Buffalo Bill is also evil, that means that queerness must be evil. I don’t mean to oversimplify or diminish audience reactions to this film at the time it came out, but rather demonstrate how dangerous the lack of care given to this characters gender/sexual identity (however inadvertently) caused a lot of harm to the LGBTQ+ community and the trans community most of all.
All this being said, The Silence of the Lambs is an excellent film and worthy of watching. It is important to remember that, though its legacy consists of gorgeous direction, exquisite acting, and strong storytelling, it also consists of the harm and stigma attached to trans individuals. Beware the gore and pay attention to the symbolism. Thanks for reading. I’ve got to go now, I’m having an old friend for dinner!
- Just another chef’s kiss to Anthony Hopkins in this role.
- .Jodie foster, girl, I hope you’re living your best gay life!
- My all-time favorite sequence is the SWAT team surrounding what they think is Buffalo Bill’s house and the cuts with Starling checking in on a lead. Beautifully done suspense.
- Is it controversial to say that I really want Buffalo Bill’s clothes that AREN’T made of skin suits?
- Serial killers really do love Bach!