Historical Circuit: ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ Is A Masterful Madhouse That Shows Its Age

ACCA 1991: In the spring of 1991, the late, great Jonathan Demme served up a cinematic dish of supreme deviancy that few would recover from. An unofficial sequel to Michael Mann’s little-seen 1986 film “Manhunter,” “The Silence of the Lambs” continues the dark foray into the FBI’s working relationship with cannibal mastermind, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. With Anthony Hopkins replacing Brian Cox as the devious psychiatrist turned mass-murderer, “creepiness” is merely the starting point of this upgraded iteration. This time, Lecter terrorizes an impressionable Quantico FBI trainee, Clarice Starling. Played with novice trepidation yet undeniable intelligence that surpasses her male colleagues preoccupied with the wrong details, Jodie Foster depicts law enforcement at its most effectual.

The film – along with its freakishly talented cast – won several Oscars at the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Its highest accolade received, “Best Picture,” was the first ever bestowed upon a horror movie. Defeating heavy-hitters “JFK,” “The Prince of Tides,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Bugsy” was a resounding statement that any genre film could rise to the level of artistic merit. Moreover, America was phasing out of its conservative revivalist Reagan days and heading into a grittier reality. The nation was on a collision course towards the headline stories of Tonya Harding, the Los Angeles riots, and the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial.

The box office success of “Silence of the Lambs” hinted at a society itching to pull back the curtain of feigned normalcy that the government and media had been shielding them with for far too long. True crime, the mentally ill, the bleakness of everyday sexism, homophobia and racism – that is what America wanted to engage with heading into the 1990s post-Bush Sr. administration. “Silence of the Lambs” wasn’t so much ahead of its time as it was definitively its time. Because of the film’s incidental topicality, problematic representations of minority groups taint its revered status.

Stylistically, “Silence of the Lambs” could be the greatest film to authentically capture the atmosphere of engaging a sociopath. Both Starling’s hellish descent into the asylum’s maximum security holding and Buffalo Bill’s arthropod emporium emphasize sinister dwellings of mind and body. But when style is taken out of the equation, “Silence of the Lambs” feels oddly dated in the age of serial killer dramatic introspection, a la Showtime’s “Dexter” and Netflix’s “Mindhunter.” The latter show even throws some shade at “Silence” when Anna Torv’s psychology professor, Wendy Carr, criticizes her FBI partners’ methodology of associating gender-bending behavior with violence.

Buffalo Bill’s characterization draws the most ire from “Silence of the Lambs” detractors. Ted Tally’s script does explicitly mention that Bill isn’t being labeled as transsexual or transgender. Bill’s victims’ postmortem mutilations do however provide him a version of gender reassignment surgery. This allows him to “escape” his male identity, whose depravity he’s apparently disgusted by. This motivation may avoid labeling, but it does codify femininity as abnormal when adopted by a man. For example, audiences witness a full-on dance sequence of Bill embracing the female essence, bushy “mangina” on full display.

If the rationale was about solely shedding one’s gender “skin” for another, why the genuine infatuation? It’s therefore difficult to separate the serial killer from his identity transformation. This depiction of Bill (perhaps unintentionally) makes the argument that bisexuals, homosexuals or transgender individuals have a sickness that stems from self-loathing. In order to defeat this “illness,” the gay and bisexual community feel the need to reject their biologically “masculine” attributes.

When viewing Bill’s psychology through the lens of Lecter and the FBI, it’s abundantly clear that offense is warranted. No minority group would ever want their biological impulses to feel invalidated or scrutinized by straight authority figures. And yet, that is exactly what “Silence of the Lambs” is guilty of, an unfortunate product of the times that exploits minority groups for dramatic enticement. Thankfully, Demme has since acknowledged that the LGBT community lacks adequate onscreen progressive portrayals.

This isn’t to suggest that “The Silence of the Lambs” can’t be a film worth repeatedly praising. Most illuminating is that Lecter shows Starling more respect than her workplace does. It’s disturbing to believe that a sociopath can identify a glaring inequity easier than those on the right side of the law. Starling’s involvement with Lecter is purely seductive bait in the eyes of her superiors. Especially in the case of Scott Glenn’s Jack Crawford, Starling’s alluring naivety is an asset he wishes to exploit to lure Lecter into a state of compliance. Crawford’s sexist opportunism combined with Dr. Frederick Chilton’s egomania naturally makes Starling more comfortable confiding in Lecter, even if it is to her career benefit. The pair’s interactions are the highlight of the film, allowing Lecter to have more character stake than the running-time suggests.

The film’s craftsmanship is unparalleled. Howard Shore’s spine-tingling score emphatically raises blood temperature. Tak Fuijimoto’s cinematography capitalizes on Lecter’s monologues by framing the killer looking directly into the camera. The viewer feels more violated by Lecter’s gaze than Starling does, suggesting that she can handle a menace anyone would cower to. If the film removed the Buffalo Bill character or minimized his involvement, a better movie would exist. Starling’s silly endgame confrontation with Bill is borderline corny – a woman with a gun who’s outside his typical prey pattern would never be stalked in the dark unharmed. Contrast this with Lecter’s ingenious escape from a few scenes earlier and it’s evident that diabolic intellect is preferable to archetypal “weirdo” serial killer.

In sum, although “The Silence of the Lambs” has major plot and representational shortcomings, its performances, and established milieu are all-timers for the genre. The film manages to be appropriately brooding, thought-provoking and popcorn-entertaining all at once. Demme’s magnum opus created a legacy of future crime thrillers that seek beyond surface fixations. Those expecting a clear divide in morality will feel complexly thwarted by this film. With Starling and Lecter, there has never been a more symbiotic bond between movie hero and villain.

GRADE: (★★★½)

What are your thoughts on “Silence of the Lambs,” and will it factor into your ACCA 1991 ballot? Tell us in the comments below!