Reconsidering ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’: Wolves Do More Than Wear Sheep’s Clothing In Jonathan Demme’s Complicated Classic

The Silence Of The Lambs” is a hostile workplace environment melodrama about what women endure in and out of the home, trained to be pliant and agreeable while predated upon by superiors, peers, and serial killers who want to wear their skin without— the film takes pains to clarify — also wanting to be them. Wolves wear sheep’s clothing not because they wish to be sheep, after all. The read is obvious enough that the film makes it itself, repeatedly, not just in framing the diminutive heroine Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) surrounded by her towering peers at the FBI’s Quantico training headquarters, but in her boss Director Crawford’s (Scott Glenn) explicit framing of her gender and attractivity as a tactic to disarm lecherous shock-comedian cum serial killer cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Arguably, this isn’t even the subtext of a film that mirrors Agent Starling of the “EFFA-BEE-EYE” against the victims of mad tailor Buffalo Bill/Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) and, arguably again, it wouldn’t have been the first film since “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to sweep the major categories at the middlebrow Academy’s annual awards ceremony had it been subtle about its ’90s-progressivism. I guess I’ve always been troubled by the film’s slick facility – with the knowing way Jonathan Demme, a director I adore, produced a prestigious version of a gothic video nasty that took the side of the beast, however urbane, at the expense of the poor, plain, stolid maiden. The last line of the picture, after all, is a joke about how this eater of men is planning on having an unctuous bureaucrat for dinner. “Eat the rude,” as they say.

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The Silence Of The Lambs

The better way to approach “The Silence of the Lambs” may be to place it among Demme’s other work and, in so doing, identify that this film is less an anomaly in a filmography that to that point includes “Stop Making Sense,” “Married to the Mob,” and “Something Wild,” as it is a piece of a larger career’s puzzle. I came to “The Silence of the Lambs,” a passionate and avowed fan of Thomas Harris. I had read his “Red Dragon” before accidentally discovering Michael Mann’s superior adaptation of it, “Manhunter,” drawn to the book by an early, elementary-into-middle-school interest in Stephen King’s (among other stories) story “Strawberry Spring,” of Ann Rule’s existentially terrifying “Stranger Beside Me,” and late nights poring over Bugliosi’s Manson diary “Helter Skelter.” Harris’ hyper-literate prose, obviously researched, notably brilliant, was for me the scratching of any number of itches, all coming to a froth at the end of a difficult high school experience.

Silences of the Lambs

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I was disappointed to see that Brian Cox, Lecter in Mann’s film, had been recast — a disappointment mostly unassuaged by Hopkins’ signature performance, which I still find to be more camp than creepy — but it’s hard to describe my ecstasy of anticipation in the lead-up to Demme’s adaptation of ‘Red Dragon’s’ sequel. What “The Silence of the Lambs” is a little in my mind now, like the relationship between the first “The Evil Dead” film and its sequel. “Manhunter,” despite the surfaces provided by a Mann already fully-formed, feels smaller, grittier, its stakes more in doubt and closer in its procedural details to Harris’ obsessively-detailed descriptions. “The Silence of the Lambs” feels big, slick perhaps, in every positive and pejorative sense of the word, it is a big-budget picture with major stars and the full backing of a studio, Orion, betting that it was catching the zeitgeist in this story of… of what?

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If the film is very obviously about how women are abused by powerful men in every aspect of their lives, what is “The Silence of the Lambs” not so obviously about? Of late, I think of it in relationship, not to the serial killer films that flowed from its wake and made an A-lister for a while of Ashley Judd, but to “His Girl Friday” in its essay of two foxes loosed in a morally-evacuated henhouse. In Hawks’ screwball classic, a woman named Molly speaks out genuinely for the life of a man about to be hanged, but the heroes don’t pay attention to her until she kills herself — and forget about her immediately after. “The Silence of the Lambs” isn’t about the victims either. The victims are just the catalysts for the moral development and polarization of its central antagonists. A line that always gets a laugh is when Buffalo Bill’’s next victim, Catherine (Brooke Smith), from the bottom of a pit in Bill’s Jungian basement, after Clarice tells her she’ll be right back, says, “Don’t you leave me here, you fucking bitch.” Still, it’s interesting, I think to unpack why it is that the line is funny. After all, Catherine isn’t just speaking from a place of fear, but perhaps a place of mistrust. She’s made the mistake of helping a stranger load something into a van, the product of a culturally-embedded adaptation to “be nice” that a few weeks in a dirt hole has beaten out of her. Here, too, is an interesting moment in which a woman mistrusts another woman, suggesting that Catherine, in this instance, sees in Clarice, just another representative of an agency that has failed her and will likely fail her again.

The Silence Of The Lambs

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Demme’s work is about outcast communities that grow at the fringes of dominant communities, or individual outcasts that are not so much integrated into the ruling culture, as pull members of the ruling culture into closer sympathy with their off-center worldview. His films aren’t underdog stories where the “loser” gains acceptance, but critiques of the mechanisms that would make life some competition designed to crown winners. It made Demme the proper choice to direct projects as disparate on their surface as his “Beloved” adaptation on the one side, “Rachel at the Wedding” on the other. The magisterial direction of Spalding Gray’s one-man stage performance “Swimming to Cambodia” on one side and the social AIDS opera “Philadelphia” on the other.

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He essayed Howard Hughes in “Melvin and Howard,” not when the notorious recluse was wooing Katharine Hepburn and running RKO, but collecting his piss in bottles and going on mortal vision quests in the desert. And so it is with “The Silence of the Lambs,” Buffalo Bill becomes the only truly human representation in all of his brokenness and perversity. Indeed, deciphering the puzzle of Bill’s condition is the only ostensible purpose of everyone in the film: Clarice, Hannibal, and Catherine are all engaged in an intensive consideration of the things that make Buffalo Bill tick. 

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By the end of the film, Hannibal is the fun kind of scary, and Buffalo Bill is the sad kind of scary. Hannibal gets laugh lines, and we thrill at how he’s able to outwit his captors and enact a kind of proletarian revenge on the suits. Buffalo Bill hunts Clarice in a metaphorical underworld in defense of the object of his glorious metamorphosis. He’s discovered, Bill is, because he surrounds himself with objects that represent for him the possibility to be something better than himself and, in so doing, to better fit into a society that has rejected him and his admittedly vile peculiarities. But Demme is at his best when he’s challenging notions of normalcy. The final act of the procedural portion of “The Silence of the Lambs” is a standoff between two outcasts taking separate routes towards the same assimilation. Catherine’s hostility towards Clarice has a dozen interpretations. Still, I think it gets a laugh because Demme times it just right to hit on how, to Catherine, there’s not a whole lot of difference between how society has programmed each of them into roles of victim and victimizer. There are no heroes here, just borders. So, “The Silence of the Lambs” is a picture about widely acceptable transgressions and transgressions that are not; about the changes we make to ourselves to address, consciously or unconsciously, the traumas that define us more completely from within, than the pressures of the culture can from without. It’s about women in hostile work environments, yes, but less about the environments than how women must contort themselves to fit. It’s why I like the book-ending of Harris’ “Lambs” sequel “Hannibal,” where Clarice decides to become Lecter’s lover and jet all over the world, eating people and watching opera. I think if Demme had been asked to adapt it instead of Ridley Scott, that’s the ending the film would’ve gotten, too.