Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Twenty-five years later: The Silence of the Lambs

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Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

At this point, it might seem like there’s nothing new to say—at least by me—about The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve discussed both the book and the movie here at length, and I’ve devoted countless posts to unpacking Hannibal Lecter’s most recent televised incarnation. Yet like all lasting works of art, and I’d argue that both the novel and the film qualify, The Silence of the Lambs continues to reveal new aspects when seen from different angles, especially now that exactly a quarter of a century has gone by since the movie’s release. Watching it again today, for instance, it’s hard not to be struck by how young Clarice Starling really is: Jodie Foster was just twenty-eight when the film was shot, and when I look at Starling from the perspective of my middle thirties, she comes off as simultaneously more vulnerable and more extraordinary. (I have an uneasy feeling that it’s close to the way Jack Crawford, not to mention Lecter, might have seen her at the time.) And it only highlights her affinities to Buffalo Bill’s chosen prey. This isn’t exactly a revelation: that sense of a dark sisterhood is a pivotal plot point in the original story. But it’s one thing to grasp this intellectually and quite another to go back and see how cannily the movie casts actresses as Bill’s victims who subtly suggest Foster’s own facial features, just a little wider. And it’s more clear than ever how Foster’s early fame, her passage into movies like Taxi Driver, her strange historical linkage to a stalker and failed assassin, and her closely guarded personal life gave her the tools and aura to evoke Starling’s odd mixture of toughness and fragility.

What’s also obvious now, unfortunately, is the extent to which Starling was—and remains—an anomaly in the genre. Starling, as embodied by Foster, has inspired countless female leads in thrillers in the decades since. (When I found myself obliged to create a similar character for my own novels, my thoughts began and ended with her.) Yet aside from Dana Scully, the results have been less than memorable. Starling has always been eclipsed by the shadow of the monster in the cell beside her, but in many ways, she was a harder character to crack, and the fact that she works so well in her written and cinematic incarnations is the result of an invisible, all but miraculous balancing act. None of the later efforts in the same direction have done as well. Christopher McQuarrie, while discussing the characters played by Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow and Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, gets close to the heart of the challenge:

They’re not men. They’re women that are not trying to be men…To me, more than anything, Rebecca is mature, elegant, confident, and at peace. Her only vulnerability in the movie is she’s just as fucked as everybody else…Usually when you want to create vulnerability for a woman, it’s about giving her a neurosis—a fear or some emotional arc that, ultimately, gets the better of her, whether it’s a need for revenge or need for redemption. You know, “Her father was killed by a twister, so she has to defeat twisters no matter what,” and I wouldn’t have any of that either. It simply was: you’re here on your own terms and you’re in a shitty situation created by people in power above you. How do you escape this situation and maintain your dignity?

Which isn’t to say that Starling didn’t suffer from her share of father issues. But those last two sentences capture her appeal as well as any I’ve ever read.

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

Time also offers some surprising perspectives on Lecter himself, or at least the version of him we see here. The Silence of the Lambs, like Rocky, is one of those classic movies that has been diminished in certain respects by our knowledge of the sequels that followed it. Conventional wisdom holds that Anthony Hopkins’s take on Lecter became broader and more self-indulgent with every installment, and it’s fashionable to say that the best version of the character was really Brian Cox in Manhunter, or, more plausibly, Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal. It’s a seductively contrarian argument, but it’s also inherently ridiculous. As great as the novel is, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Lecter or Thomas Harris or The Silence of the Lambs at all if it weren’t for Hopkins’s performance. And in many ways, it’s his facile, even superficial interpretation of the character that made the result so potent. Hopkins was discovered and mentored by Laurence Olivier, whom he understudied in August Strindberg’s Dance of Death, and it helps to view his approach to Lecter through the lens of the quote from Olivier that I cited here the other week: “I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.” Hopkins’s creature is the finest example I know of a classically trained stage lion slumming it in a juicy genre part, and even if it wasn’t a particularly difficult performance once Hopkins figured out the voice, still—he figured out that voice.

And as soon as we acknowledge, or even embrace, the degree to which Lecter is a fantasy that barely survives twelve minutes onscreen, the more this approach seems like a perfectly valid solution to this dance of death. If Lecter seemed increasingly hammy and unconvincing in the movie versions of Hannibal and Red Dragon, that isn’t a failure on Hopkins’s part: making him the main attraction only brought out the artificiality and implausibility that had been there all along, and Hopkins just did what any smart actor would have done under the circumstances—take the money and try to salvage his own sense of fun. (As it happens, Ted Tally’s script for Red Dragon is surprisingly good, a thoughtful, inventive approach to tough material that was let down by the execution. If I had to choose, I’d say he did a better job on the page than Bryan Fuller ultimately did with the same story.) With the passage of time, it’s increasingly clear that Lecter falls apart even as you look at him, and that he’s a monster like the shark in Jaws or the dinosaurs that would follow two years later in Jurassic Park: they’re only convincing when glimpsed in flashes or in darkness, and half of the director’s art lies in knowing when to cut away. Put him front and center, as the sequels did, and the magic vanishes. Asking why Hopkins is so much more effective in The Silence of the Lambs than in the films that followed is like asking why the computer effects in Jurassic Park look better than their equivalents today: it isn’t about technology or technique, but about how the film deploys it to solve particular problems. Twelve minutes over twenty-five years is about as much scrutiny as Hopkins’s wonderful Lecter could sustain. And the rest, as they say, should have been silence.

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