Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel, is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle.
The narrative concerns the F.B.I.’s quest to find a killer of young, plus-sized women who’re found floating in rivers, partially skinned. Demme rhymes the violence inflicted on the victims with the aggression that F.B.I. trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) weathers in the corridors of government offices and other realms that she investigates while searching for the killer. Throughout the film, Demme contrasts the diminutive Clarice with her tall and burly male colleagues, revealing her existence to be casually rife with battles for respect that many men take for granted as a birthright. Scenes are often shot from Clarice’s point of view, framing men’s faces so that they’re talking directly to the camera, forcing the audience to confront Clarice’s sense of being under siege as she’s sexually harassed, brushed aside, or endlessly condescended to.
In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Clarice is sent by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the F.B.I.’s Behavioral Science Unit to interview a serial killer and disgraced psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. After a promising tête-à-tête, Hannibal turns on Clarice, homing in on her class insecurity, saying that she resembles a “rube” with her cheap clothes and a West Virginian accent that she tries to obscure. Clarice weathers this attack and turns the tables on Hannibal, igniting a relationship that blurs lines between subject and investigator, mentor and pupil, and seduced and seducer. Hannibal’s cruelty explodes the masculine resentment that dogs Clarice everywhere, offering her a catharsis by uniting her classist self-loathing with her struggles with institutionalized sexism. Hannibal recognizes Clarice’s desperate urge to transcend herself, a yearning that runs under the film like an electric current.
Foster allows us to feel the pain of Hannibal’s words, as well as Clarice’s unresolved exaltation at hearing him voice her deepest fears. When Hannibal calls her a rube, Clarice appears to wilt and bloom somehow at once without hardly moving. Such a mysterious sense of physicality runs through Foster’s extraordinary performance, intensifying the film’s horror. As terrifying as the sequences with Hannibal and Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) are, The Silence of the Lambs is ultimately centered on an anxiety of exposure. People fear that their feelings of inferiority will be unearthed by friends, family, and strangers alike, and Hannibal’s supernatural discernment of such fear distinguishes him from more forgettable movie villains. His skill explains our attachment to him despite our better moral judgment. We seek this master aesthete’s approval, as he’s the abusive lover or boss we wish to please in spite of ourselves.
The film is driven by Clarice’s quest to tame her self-loathing, which parallels Buffalo Bill’s deranged efforts to do the same. Buffalo Bill kidnaps women, imprisons them in a pit at the bottom of his home’s labyrinthine basement, and skins them so as to fashion himself a second skin, fostering a transformation that he likens to the emergence of a moth from a cocoon. A humanist to his core, Demme can’t even entirely vilify Buffalo Bill, who embodies a perverted masculinity that manifests itself more insidiously in Clarice’s relationships with Jack and Hannibal, parallel father figures and figurative lovers given to exploitation and manipulation.
In a famous as well as infamous scene from The Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill primps in front of a mirror and dances to Q Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses” as he tucks his penis between his legs so as to envision himself as a woman. Demme and Levine allow Buffalo Bill to be pitiful, poignant, and majestic, resisting the cartoonish inhumanity that often governs films about serial killers. Yet Bill’s intended victim, Catherine (Brooke Smith), also screams in the background of this sequence, grounding it the reality of his monstrousness.
Demme wasn’t a horror filmmaker, but a warm portraitist who was occasionally drawn to operatically lurid material, and his seeming misplacement in The Silence of the Lambs complements Clarice and Buffalo Bill’s alienation. Demme emphasizes unusual textures, enlivening even the generic qualities of the film’s narrative. Like many of Demme’s films, The Silence of the Lambs is a veritable sea of faces, a casual celebration of miniature communities, which, in this context, bolsters the notion of the serial killer as a betrayer of social trust. And when Clarice delves into the hallway of madness that initially imprisons Hannibal, the gothic set is enriched by sounds that underscore the machinery that precariously keeps such a place running. As Hannibal beats a man to death with his own baton, Demme lingers on blood that’s splattered near an uneaten meal, which the victim brought to Hannibal with a sense of care that bordered on respect, rendering Hannibal’s killing all the more obscene. Such details inform the film with a rapturous empathy that only heightens the horror.
Per the disc’s liner notes, this digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35mm original camera negative and was supervised by D.P. Tak Fujimoto. The result is extraordinary as well as revelatory for anyone who’s never seen The Silence of the Lambs in the theater. The image of this transfer is somewhat soft and grainy, with a tactile sense of materiality that was flattened out on prior DVD editions. The film is a feast of vivid textures, abounding in facial close-ups, hard and scruffy tree bark, mangled fingernails, giallo-like explosions of color, and especially the mess of nightmarish objects that adorn Buffalo Bill’s torture realm. These details really pop on this transfer, though the image hasn’t been cleaned up too much, so as to perverse its unforgettably warm, autumnal scruffiness. For a pop-cultural phenomenon, The Silence of the Lambs is an intimate, artisanal affair, and Fujimoto has preserved that quality with characteristic sensitivity. Two soundtracks are included: an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround, which represents the film’s original mix, and an English 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio Surround that’s designed to better accommodate modern home-video systems. Though purists will prefer the former, both tracks are superb, particularly in balancing the film’s subtly heightened natural soundscapes with Howard Shore’s bold and poignant score.
A new interview with critic Maitland McDonagh offers a wide-ranging consideration of serial killers in pop culture over the course of 17 succinct minutes, including Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, and other real-life criminals, as well as the fictional killers at the center of M, Badlands, The Silence of the Lambs, and Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV series. An audio commentary from 1994 featuring director Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally, and former F.B.I. agent John Douglas has plenty of evocative observations, particularly by Demme and Foster, who internalized the narrative to a great degree. Demme offers a master class in his working methods, illustrating his acuity for informing scenes with unusual details, like the chilling “submarine sounds” that can be heard as Clarice first descends into the corridor holding Hannibal. Meanwhile, Foster claims that Hannibal seeks an acknowledgement of his humanity from Clarice, while Hopkins says that his character is a machine-like man “locked in the monstrosity of his own madness.” Hours of documentaries collectively map out the various collaborations that were key to realizing the film, such as Demme’s relationships with the cast, D.P. Tak Fujimoto, and film composer Howard Shore, who, in his own featurette, memorably says that he writes music from the characters’ perspectives. Thomas Harris is given repeated shout-outs, though the reclusive author is only heard from directly in pieces included with the booklet accompanying the package, which also features an essay by critic Amy Taubin and another interview with Demme. Deleted scenes, storyboards, and the film’s trailer round out an engagingly mammoth package.
Just in time for Valentine’s, Criterion superbly refurbishes one of the most disturbing and least conventional love affairs in the history of cinema.