What with all the hullabaloo around the televised Hannibal struggling to survive, let us turn our attention to the grand opus of the character and, with all apologies to Michael Mann’s Manhunter, the primary cause of the character’s continued social relevance today.
It’s not that good, but it’s pretty good, as they say.
Jonathan Demme’s baroque 1991 exercise in rekindling the exploitation fire that stoked his loins twenty years before is something of a coming home party. Remember, this man’s first directed feature was a tried-and-true “women in prison” film, arguably the most exploitative of all exploitation sub-genres, and in the intervening years, the greatest concert film of all time notwithstanding, Demme largely retreated to the more stable, less satisfying regions of “respectable cinema” for middle-aged suburban couples, a state he has since, unfortunately, returned to. It is no surprise that The Silence of the Lambs boasts an undeniable passion of craft, right from the misty, positively soaking wet autumnal forest it begins in all the way to the audience-implicating, voyeuristic conclusion. Demme’s heart is in it, and his heart was in it so much that he managed to have it both ways and tally up a few Oscars (a lot of Oscars) and a tidy paycheck or two. The Hollywood machine is a shame, but sometimes, and only sometimes, it gets it just right.
Well, not quite just right. I will insist that a bargain-bin Silence made on a shoe-string budget (see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) would be an altogether more corporeal, carnal, flesh-craving beast of a film, less sure in the pleasures of safe, stately, high-quality movie-making. To bridge that extra inch from “extremely effective Hollywood thriller” to “deeply disquieting, uncomfortable film that seems to not have been produced, but instead nightmared or discovered from the bowels of human kind’s worst fears”, less is often more. Silence, in this regard, is a little too clean, a little too stately, a little too attractive, and a little too costly to sell the Grand Guignol gods it aspires to serve.
However, for a Hollywood B-movie masquerading as a Major Studio A-picture, it is still rather nasty and naughty, a study in cyclical disorientation and suspicion strapped to suggestive pangs of inner animalism. I’ll take a good old-fashioned B movie any day – Silence can never capture their grubby otherworldliness – but Silence is the next best thing. Demme, for one, has a field day, panning and warping his camera into all sorts of malformed shapes and gesticulations (at one point, the camera pans around the film’s main character in an oblong, elliptical shape that seems to bend in on itself; it feels sublimely off-putting). The film’s highlight is naught but a character walking toward another character and engaging in conversation with him, but Demme saturates the scene in the murky aura of unconscionable red hell and ghostly shot-choices that emphasize the walking death of the area.
Of course, the scene is also an act-off that sets up the central conflict: FBI agent Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster) attempt to locate the serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) with the lesser-evil help of captured cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (wonderfully demented name, giving an equally wonderfully demented voice by Anthony Hopkins). Foster is superior in the role, and in the aforementioned scene, blanketing eager self-redemption and quavering discomfort in a militaristic stone face that emphasizes both her determination and the weight she bears as a woman struggling in what was traditionally a man’s field.
Hopkins is on another planet however, malforming his voice with a deranged variant on a Transatlantic accent by way of Hal 9000, preparing his words as if he learned them phonetically and doing everything in his humanly power to evoke a specter or an automaton rather than a human being. He doesn’t so much speak his words as prowl around them, engaging in a deeply uncomfortable miscegenation of submissive passivity and domineering assertion. It is a low-slung performance of high-camp, theatrical and pronounced and deliberately artificial and over-baked to sell the soul of a character who is an artificial construct, an over-baked theatrical monster who prefers playing in a world of artifice to flailing around in the doldrums of reality.
Thematically, there are arguments for Silence as a psychological character piece about the intersection of the mundane world and the underworld, about the human mind in conflict with its own sanity, and most pungently about the abuse of the female body filtered through a woman who is no mere masculine stereotype but instead a living, breathing female desperate to cope with the ruination of female human flesh and mental self by the masculine beings of the world. Demme has an eye for the voyeuristic, and with editor Craig McKay, he engages in some deeply subversive and deceptive (Demme’s own words) editing techniques that connect Buffalo Bill’s hunting of women with the way the men in uniform observe Starling on her everyday job. A particularly cunning scene suggests a connection between Bill and the men who perform an autopsy on one of his naked victims, with Demme finding ever-lurking male eyes searching for female flesh in all realms of society, both the socially unacceptable and the socially condoned. Every close-up of male eyes becomes a close-up into their lustful hearts, and into the implicit social discontinuity between the male gaze we shun (social outcasts who are male rapists) and the male gaze we welcome (everyday glares and comments on the street).
However, the heart of Silence of the Lambs, I must concede, is not a psychological dissection or a social critique (the film’s vague fear of transsexuals and homosexuals is limited but nonetheless present in the margins and off-putting either way). It is, instead, a potboiler, and an exemplary one at that. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography owes immensely to horror cinema across the decades (in particular Hammer Horror; I would take the worst film in the world for the exploitation zoom-in to the Frankensteinian mug of Lecter entombed in a face mask prison of unforgiving, ascetic metal, plus there is an operatically Kubrickian shot of a man strung up like a moth in a dusky room that is as mercilessly beautiful an image as American cinema in the 1990s produced). Kristi Zea’s production design births a cornucopia of autumnal outsides and gruesome, ghoulish interiors like parades of light and darkness. Ted Tally’s screenplay is not a work of depth or insight or literary urgency, but it is a structural near-masterwork that unfolds with cruel efficiency in almost the least possible time it could unfold (no small success). The film is not a masterpiece, but it is difficult to imagine an improved version of itself, and when it gets to slithering and slimily smiling and skulking in the background, it is a little slice of Hollywood miracle.