“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991): a dangerous game of shapeshifters and shadows

For my next movie analysis I wanted to explore a story with a strong Shadow, and the blog community voted the five times Academy Award winner “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).  I knew that this was going to be a tough nut to crack, but I had no idea how much. Strap in.

Before we start: in “The Silence of the Lambs”, the LBGTQ representation is problematic 

The 1991 movie is a horror/thriller classic, but some aspects didn’t age so well. This is a journey into the darker unconscious and its shadows; exploring themes such as mental health, violence, gender roles, abuse, and identity.

Some aspects were groundbreaking and are still to praise: Jodie Foster’s character (Clarice Starling)

“is not a rah-rah, you-go-girl token female lead. It’s crucial, not incidental, to the film that she is a complex human being. Jodie Foster […] had become known in Hollywood for her ambitious, feminist work” (Quartz).

“Foster’s Clarice Starling and Smith’s Catherine Martin represent something unique in slasher movies: women who won’t play the victim.” (Rolling Stones).

But, while the story at least includes a feminist point of view – Starling is a woman who lives and acts in a men’s world and is determined to make a change – it fails in its representation of gay culture, depicted as a seedy, horrific underworld, stalked by literal monsters. You couldn’t design a more transphobic bad guy than the serial killer Starling spends the movie in search of”.

Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix) exposed on Hollywood Reporter how it demonized the transgender community:

“Though we have come a long way since Silence of the Lambs, we continue to be demonized and vilified in the media where attack ads portray us as potential predators to keep us from even using the goddamn bathroom,” she wrote. “We are not predators, we are prey.”

Director Jonathan Demme “responded that the character was not supposed to be gay or trans, but rather someone so profoundly damaged that he was seeking transformation in any way possible”, and actor Ted Levine said in a documentary that he never played the character as gay. “The stance I took was more of an acutely homophobic heterosexual man doing that mocking thing. I kind of took it that he was sort of imitating the way his mother might have talked to the poodle”. Whether these are satisfactory answers or not, I will leave it up to you.

I wanted to leave this here, before moving further to analyze its structure.

This film probably contributed to creating a negative general image of gay, or more specifically transexual people. When dealing with the shadows that inhabit us, storytellers have a huge responsibility. Creating “monsters” is dangerous, because they very often outlive their own stories. Buffalo Bill remains one of the most horrific characters in film, and he embodies a very problematic representation of non-binary identity.

Warning: obviously spoilers ahead, and topics really intended for a mature audience. Read at your discretion. 

Act I – A job has come up 

The scene opens with the protagonist, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in her Ordinary World, the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia. We follow her training and we quickly learn that she wants to become an FBI agent. The call to adventure comes early on as we learn that Jack Crawford (the boss of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI) wants to see her.

It’s a tough world and it’s a man’s world. We have a glimpse of that as Clarice is eyed by her male colleagues during her training, or as she is the only woman in the entire elevator, going up.

 

Crawford and Clarice already met during her training, and she wants to work in his unit after graduation. It’s swiftly established that he is a Mentor figure for her.

Crawford gives Clarice her special objects (a questionnaire and a temporary badge, the key that will unlock the door to the Underworld), and sets her off on a quest. A terrifying serial killer is out, nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” by the press, and the FBI believes that an interview with one of the most dangerous criminals can reveal some hints on his personality or on how to apprehend him. Crawford warns Clarice about the very dangerous nature of the men she is going to meet:

This sets off a long and nerve-wracking adventure that acts as a crossing the threshold sequence for Clarice, but in reality it contains all the stages of a full Hero’s Journey. As she travels to Baltimore to meet “Hannibal the Cannibal”, she meets the director of the Hospital, the creepy Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) – honestly one of the most disturbing characters in the movie, and note that he is one of the “good guys”.

He acts as a threshold guardian and tests Clarice: first by awkwardly suggesting a date, then by offering some low-blow insinuations about why Crawford might have chosen her for the job.

That is in poor taste, Fred. Not that he cares.

Clarice has to defend herself, suggesting that her education might actually be a better reason. The sexual and sexist theme will be accompanying Clarice’s adventure until the end.

They enter the maximum security branch with an eerie blinking red light, an even stronger “descent to hell” feeling. We are entering a dungeon with infernal lights, and creatures can be heard screaming. In the dark.

A reassuring presence appears. Barney. Smiling and comforting, he represents another archetype, the “guardian angel” for Clarice. The book describes how he always uses a human touch even with the prisoners, and he is able to gain Hannibal Lecter’s respect.

This approach to the inmost cave in the first Act is important to prepare the Protagonist (and the audience) to what’s coming next. The Ordeal.

Hannibal Lecter is introduced. He is one of the most iconic characters of film and tv of the past 20 years, and for a reason. In “The Silence of the Lambs” he acts as a Shadow Mentor, Shapeshifter, and sometimes as the Villain. A haunting, very layered and complex character that no doubt will remain imprinted in the audience’s mind.

He immediately tests Clarice, and finds her lacking spotting the temporary FBI badge. Clarice drops the act immediately and builds trust with him. The Mentor-Apprentice nature of their relationship is established.

However, as a teacher Hannibal is one of a kind.

He constantly teases Clarice, frightens her, tests her and suggests sexual innuendos. It’s a disturbing act of penetration (mental – but the constant sexual references suggest also a physical dimension) through which he gains satisfaction and establishes dominance over his mentee.

“With a glass of Chianti”. Fun fact: in the book the wine is actually Amarone. Chianti is considered a bad pairing for liver, and a conoisseur such as Hannibal would never commit such a mistake. In the movie, they opted for the much more popular Tuscanian brand.

Clarice will learn a great deal from him, but at what cost? A bit of her sanity, or integrity, perhaps? She will have to answer questions like this during her initiation journey.  Thanks to Hannibal’s questioning, we also get to learn some details of her childhood and personality.

Clarice grew up alone with her dad, a cop.

The exchange is heated. Lecter initially rejects the student (a Refusal), but then decides to test her with a riddle:

Clarice finds a “Yourself Storage” facility and has the idea to check it out. It’s another threshold sequence in which she has to prove not only her intellectual abilities, but also the physical ones. The door is heavy and it gets stuck, and in the act of lifting it up, Clarice gets hurt and starts bleeding.

It’s a small detail, but very powerful on the symbolic level, in that it represents that the Protagonist is vulnerable and can – will – get hurt during her quest. Bloodletting is also a key element in many rites of passage. Clarice is passing one threshold after another.

As it turns out, the whole garage errand was a riddle Dr. Lecter (now wearing a Guardian hat) gave Clarice to test her skills.

She passes with flying colors, and she earns Hannibal’s trust. They establish a deal. It’s a Pact with the Devil sequence that works in deep unconscious ways.

And with this, we also get to learn more about Hannibal Lecter’s motivations. He wants to get out – or, as the second-best option available to him, wants a room with a view. This closes the First Act and sets in motion the main part of the Journey.

Act II – Journey into the Shadow Land

As soon as Clarice comes back to the FBI’s headquarters, another Herald comes to call her. The second act opens with a new Call to Adventure.

It’s interesting to notice how the plot follows a recursive structure. Each Act is articulated as a mini-journey in three parts Setup-Ordeal-Resolution. The stakes are constantly raised as the narrative tension builds up.

This time Clarice is sent to West Virginia, which incidentally (or not) is also where she was born. We can anticipate that for her, the Ordeal will also be a journey back to her origins, and she will have to face some deep, personal challenges buried in her past. 

Doctor Lecter accurately spotted her accent during their first meeting.

This is just a tiny detail, subtle but effective information seeded in the audience’s mind during the First Act, to resurface later and deliver a strong recognition effect.

In West Virginia, Clarice is witness to the autopsy of the latest of Buffalo Bill’s victims. It’s another approach to the inmost cave for her – literal, as she joins the funeral wake of the poor girl; and metaphorical, as she relives memories of her dad’s funeral.

This is an important moment as Clarice gets to face one of her most personal fears – something she will have to solve before she can emerge victorious from her Journey.

Clarice also has a key role during the autopsy (another test), as she spots a strange object inside the girl’s throat.

On their way back, Clarice and Crawford have a little confrontation about gender roles in society. This is an honest moment in which Clarice gets to show the power of her quiet resolve, as she shares her point of view with her Mentor.

Crawford shuts up, and listens.

“Point taken”. Without “yes, but”. Attaboy.

Time for a little Reward. Clarice takes her pupa to a research laboratory, and the local experts reveal some precious information: it’s the pupa of the very rare Death’s Head Moth (ugh), a species that doesn’t live in America and needs to be imported from Asia. This information will be relevant for the investigation.

One of the researchers even proposes a date to Clarice. Her expression says “Dude, you too?”.

In the meantime, for the first time we are introduced to the Dragon’s Lair. The camera slowly rolls in to show us “Buffalo Bill” at work in his basement. He seems busy working on something.

A girl (we know she is the daughter of a very influential US Senator) is screaming. She is trapped in a well.

This terrifying sequence anticipates part of the horror that Clarice will have to face in her final confrontation, if she is to defeat the Villain.

Back to Baltimore, Clarice meets Lecter again. This time she acts as the herald, and she proposes a deal.

Lecter will be transferred to a much nicer location, if he accepts to fully cooperate. He demands another test from Clarice.

She responds with sincerity: the test is passed.

As a Reward, Lecter shares valuable insights on the killer’s mind. Now this part is very problematic.

It’s an attempt to explain the pathology behind the killer’s behavior, and to humanize him. He has been turned into a monster by “years of systematic abuse”. I appreciate that.

The problem is, the explanation falls quite short and it kind of implies that transsexuality is a pathology.

I believe Lecter means transgender here.
Wait, WHAT?

As I said in the introduction, this part raises a lot of issues and it’s just factually wrong. We will never know if it’s a position that reflects the screenwriter’s ideas, or Dr. Lecter’s prejudices on the topic, and I will not go deeper on the issue because it’s beyond the point of this analysis. Enough said, this is enough to paint transgender people in a very negative light in the eyes of a global audience, and it’s superficial, irresponsible and openly dangerous.

In the meantime, Dr. Chilton was listening. He is obviously playing his own game, and later he confronts Lecter exposing that Clarice was just bluffing. The deal was a lie.

Notice the pen? That’s another seeding.

Eager to get in the game and claim the glory for himself, Chilton proposes his own version of the deal.

Lecter accepts, but he demands to be transferred to Tennessee and speak to the Senator in person.

Dr. Chilton’s pen is once again shown to us. It is clear that Lecter has noticed it. This is Chekhov’s gun.

Cut to Memphis, Tennessee. This is another approach that leads the way to the biggest Ordeal.

 

Lecter plays his next move and gives false information to the Senator to put them off track.

But Clarice can read his mind now and she calls the bluff.

On the symbolic level, this represents her new ability to read the criminal’s mind. By letting Dr. Lecter “in her head” in the first place, she gained part of his powers. It’s the essence of the Pact with the Devil sealed in the First Act.

Set in the open-air cage that temporarily holds Lecter in Memphis, this third (and final) encounter between Clarice and Hannibal is the most decisive one.

Once again, Lecter demands a “quid pro quo” (something for something) for his help. He keeps probing Clarice’s mind asking deeper questions about her childhood trauma.

This incredibly intense sequence establishes the story’s theme and explains the movie title.

Clarice’s need is clarified: she has to apprehend the killer and save his victims to compensate for the impotence she felt when she couldn’t stop the slaughter. This is associated to her growing up without parents and the premature death of her father. By stopping the killer, she will claim her independence as an adult.

To do that, she needs the support of surrogate fathers, who complement each other. The importance of her two mentor figures is so justified:

– Crawford represents intellectual power and political authority (the FBI), a benevolent (if a bit old-minded) patriarchal figure who represents the rules of society and procedure but is also limited by them. He is protective, wise, and carries no romantic or erotic tension. He will support Clarice in her career, but when he tries to break the rules, the system backfires against him;

– Lecter is also an intellectual authority, but he embodies the devilish qualities of lawlessness and destructive power. His main attribute (cannibalism) is one of the most savage actions we can imagine, but it means his willingness to reject morality and common sense in order to achieve his goals. Lecter is also driven by a personal sense of justice and purpose, unbound by the rules that govern society. His constant sexual teasing will force Clarice to address physical maturity and her gender identity and role, other important steps defining adulthood.

 

Satisfied, Lecter presents Clarice with her Reward. It’s the final weapon she will need to find and capture the serial killer.

And as he gives it to her, they share a moment of (forced) intimacy, once again trespassing the barriers imposed by their relationship.

Act III – The Resolution. Back to the Light. 

This meeting sets in motion the breath-taking series of events that will lead to the conclusion.

First, Lecter has to escape his improvised prison. The two guards assigned to his security detail will just be unfortunate collateral damage on his way to freedom.

Lecter has a clear plan to get out. It’s the most gruesome sequence of the entire film which ruined Bach’s Goldberg Variations forever for me. Let’s skip it. If you watched it, you remember it. But if you want, here it is.

And voilà, the pen reappears. He will use it to get free from the handcuffs.

With Lecter on the run, Clarice feels strangely safe. It’s hard to explain why.

At the symbolic level, this happens because a part of the monster’s blood runs now in her veins: she has been initiated. It’s a device common in many monster stories, (Dracula, Alien 3): the creature will not hunt his own kind.

Ardelia is Clarice’s best friend and main ally during her quest. She helps them during her life at the Academy and on the investigation. Too bad the movie only reserves her a marginal role.

Everything happens so fast now. Thanks to Lecter’s files and handwritten notes, Clarice is able to track Fredrica Bimmel (Bill’s first victim) and understands his motives: initially, we covet what we know. Bill must have personally known the girl!

Crawford identifies Buffalo Bill (again, using information received by Lecter) but the FBI is on a fool’s errand, they are looking in the wrong place.

And the final sequence begins. Buffalo Bill is in his Dark Cave enacting whatever fantasy his is – and forever ruining also “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus.

We get to see more glimpses of his daily life, including this very disturbing quilt with red swastikas. Not sure why it’s there, maybe fantasies of power and domination, anyway it’s another sign that Bill has a very, very troubled mind.

Clarice is backtracking all of Fredrica’s work contacts, and she accidentally rings his doorbell. She literally stumbles on Buffalo Bill. 

He invites her into his home. It’s yet another approach to the Dark Cave, the most decisive, with the highest stakes. We know this will be the final confrontation.

A moth appears, flying on sewing equipment. Two familiar, revealing signs.

Clarice springs into action, but Bill runs into his basement.

In the final, absolutely terrifying fight, Clarice is stumbling in the dark while Bill – with infrared goggles – is stalking her. Predator and prey exchange roles again. Another powerful symbol: she is alone and blind in the moment of her final test.

The audience watches with bated breath as the camera’s point of view switches to Bill’s. We see the victim through the killer’s eyes. It’s disgusting and horrific and amplifies the effect of this sequence to a new height.

Clarice hears a clicking sound, aims and shoots in the dark, emptying her gun. Bill is fatally hit. 

Daylight pours through a shattered window, darkness is defeated. Bill sputters blood, it’s the moment of Resurrection.

A butterfly flies in the wind. A symbol of rebirth. 

Quickly, the Journey Back to the Ordinary World. Clarice is comforted by Crawford.

And in the following Graduation ceremony she obtains her Helixir: her FBI badge (new identity, New Life).

And as Crawford congratulates her, he mentions the Reconciliation with her Father. Emotional closure. Is it the end?

Not quite. The Shadow Mentor also manifests to congratulate. Lecter calls in to provide resolution with the darker powers.

 

Having mastered the powers of Light (the Law, investigation procedures) and Darkness (manhunt, madness, violence), Clarice is now a Master of the Two Worlds.  Her journey is over.

The final blessing is pronounced by Hannibal Lecter, just before his legendary final words.

And he walks away having, in fact, the last words. And stealing the scene from Clarice.

Wooow! What a journey this has been.

To analyze this horror/thriller classic has been much harder than I thought, not only because I had to revisit its dark themes over again; but also because, as I said, some of its messages are very problematic and need to be re-contextualized. Anyway, it’s done now and I hope this will bring some closure and a better understanding of the inners mechanisms of a well-made thriller.

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