Slashers & Serial Killers In Review : Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Silence Of The Lambs marked a monumental moment in film history. For me, it was one of those transitions as a teenager where I saw first hand how gripping a story could be and how the villain of a story can be developed just as much, if not more than the hero. Silence Of The Lambs would also lead to a number of unfortunate side effects down the road, something that was completely out of their control and that I will touch on later.
This film made household names out of both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. And while Foster certainly deserves the credit she receives for her work, the role of Clarice Starling is almost a throwaway for me. You can’t have a movie without a protagonist and she fits that bill just fine. We have a young, talented FBI agent-in-training, one with a bright future, but also with a past just dark enough to be exploited by one Hannibal Lector.
For me, Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of the brilliant cannibal stands as one of the greatest performances in film history. He won an Oscar for best supporting actor, which is a rare honor awarded for genre films such as this. But for as much as Silence Of The Lambs became about Hopkins’ performance, people are often shocked to find out that he was actually only on screen for about fifteen minutes. Some have claimed that he has a little as twelve. So little time and yet Anthony Hopkins is the cruel, cold heart of this movie.
Why are we so drawn to the monsters? To the vile, abhorrent and deviant sociopaths that destroy and tear lives apart? Because make no mistake, the franchise that was launched with this film is all about Hannibal Lector. No one’s putting out Clarice Starling origin stories or spinoff television series. In the first sequel to this film, Starling wasn’t even played by the same actor. And to be sure, you can chalk that up to Jodie Foster simply not wanting her career to be attached to that role. But the thing is, that film was done in my opinion almost as if Starling was a completely different character. I felt no connection between Starling in Hannibal and Starling from Silence Of The Lambs. And I doubt many people really cared.
So why are we drawn as a culture to the worst kind of characters? Wouldn’t it make more sense as a society to flock to the resourceful and courageous FBI agent? She is after all, the hero of the film so why do we instead focus so much on this well of moral darkness embodied in a character that we barely even see?
I think part of it is fascination on our part with a character that we shouldn’t ever be able to truly understand. It isn’t hard to wrap your brain around a character like Clarice Starling. She is an intelligent woman who is devoted to her job and kicks ass. That’s something that all of us can easily understand.
On the other hand though, a man who brutally murders people and dines on their remains? And not only that, but an individual who is not a drooling-at-the-mouth, knuckle dragging psychopath, but rather a well spoken and highly intelligent individual. This is the character who could easily deliver you a an informed lecture on sentimentality in the history of Italian opera, entire Shakespeare sonnets from memory and paint you a sunset on an oil canvas before scooping your eyeballs out and enjoying them atop a lovely Caesar salad.
For me, the brilliance of Silence Of The Lambs is in taking us to the darkest of places in our society and forcing us to look around. That it isn’t as simple as saying, she’s a hero and he’s a monster. It’s about the fact that the monsters we abhor can come shrouded in the cloaks of the well-spoken, respectful people we think we are surrounding ourselves with. It’s about showing us that even the most morally repulsive of characters can have a point of view.
On the other side of things, I feel like I also have to discuss that Silence Of The Lambs also represents an aspect to the Hollywood entertainment machine that I’m not so fond of anymore. I think Silence is about as perfect as a film can get. It’s smartly written, with complex and compelling characters. The pacing of the story is perfect, with a Brinks truck full of disturbing and frightening atmosphere.
But in my humble opinion, that’s where it should have ended.
It seems like the compulsion of Hollywood is to treat a successful property like it’s a cash register. Keep hitting the button and watch the drawer pop out. And keep that up for as long as you can. I don’t disparage companies for wanting to turn a profit. But what does Hollywood think is going to happen if they stopped leaning so much on the already-discovered concepts? Do they think people will just stop going to movies because they can’t get Rush Hour 7? Or a remake of the second reboot of Iron Eagle 2?
The first incursion into this territory came in the form of Hannibal, a direct sequel to Silence. The film has its merits for sure and some incredibly cool performances. But the core of the film to me just felt wrong, disconnected from its origin. Julianne Moore was functional but also a bit flat in my opinion. Like I said earlier, it was like Starling had fundamentally changed as a character. There was just too much missing between point A and point B to really understand her anymore as a character. It’s also hard to not think she might have been a little resentful in advance of the inevitable comparisons to Jodie Foster she had to have known were coming. And Anthony Hopkins went from a marginal, but terrifying presence to an omnipresent force of nature, to the point where he becomes nearly cartoonish in his scope and prowess. I enjoyed Hannibal but I think it would have been better as it’s own creation, instead of an extension of a previous film. I almost view it as a standalone film. It really doesn’t need anything from Silence Of The Lambs and all of those characters could have been written as new and original.
Red Dragon came next and while I give the filmmakers credit for getting Anthony Hopkins to look eerily similar to how he looked in the first film, Red Dragon felt like reheated pizza to me. Basically the same story as was told in Silence Of The Lambs.
I didn’t even bother with the film that came after. I also haven’t seen the series, although I do hear it is quite good.
I find that the “evil genius” has become somewhat of an overdone trope and I think the modern conception of that type of character can be traced back to Hannibal Lector. What does Hollywood do? It takes ideas that have worked and it keeps working them. There have been a lot of characters that have felt like drawn out versions of Hannibal Lector, even some of the iterations of Hannibal himself.
Is any of that the fault of Silence Of The Lambs? Not in the slightest. But it is patient zero in a long progression to what I feel has become stale and overdone. Even the best things in life have unfortunate consequences.
Still, the salve is simple. Either pop in a DVD or crack open the book and enjoy a great movie or an awesome read.
See the greatness, when it all started.
Chad A. Clark is an author of horror and science fiction. For more information on his literary universe, check out his official website or take a peek at his Amazon author page