Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Silence of the Lambs, based on Thomas Harris’ novel series, made me realise something deeply disturbing about the Contemporary Movie Viewer. The premise of the film, wherein a cannibal helps a young FBI cadet capture a serial killer who skins his victims and sews their skin together, sparked an avalanche of outrage from many contemporary viewers. Yet today, such gruesome plots could easily be accepted within a standard episode of Criminal Minds. So why is Demme’s iconic film such a multi-Oscar-winning big deal and a timeless addition to the genres of horror and thriller alike?
First of all, Silence of the Lambs is a lot more precise than most modern thrillers, that often attempt to top each other’s brutality for brutality’s sake. Here, an attempt is made to thoroughly discover the environment the psychologically divergent exist in, rather than just have them hack and slash away with no context whatsoever.
And whether you are radically desensitised to gore or not (yet), this movie is going to give you something so poetically violent that it shoots straight into your subconscious. The key to this is that you are placed within the events, by putting every meaningful conversation centimetres away from your face. This extensive use of close-ups forces you to see every nerve of the actors, feel the stench of rancid human breath, and ensures we are constantly exposed to the horrors that occur. There is something nauseatingly bodily about all of this, something deeply disturbing about how the film involves a myriad of senses into merging skin, human flesh and food.
This trapped-inside technique creates arguably the most cognitively effective feminist narrative I have ever encountered. Jodie Foster’s signature role, the young and talented Agent Clarice Starling, is surrounded by a pool of straight male testosterone in the world of crime investigation, and she is thriving in her battle against a ceiling made of concrete instead of glass. There are constant scenes where crowds of men staring bluntly into the camera, and the implicit violence of these altercations sometimes hits harder than the more obvious harassments. Clarice is not your aggressive, system-defying feminist with forced-on girl-power. She is afraid, with her efforts being far from glamourous until she gets the job done, and these imperfections are what make her virtually perfect.
Then, there is Anthony Hopkins’ Dr Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter. His charm is petrifying, and he treats Clarice as the most competent and valuable human present and not just as piece of meat, in both a sexual and literal sense. There is something perversely aesthetic in him and his epicure appetite, as he strives to know the essence of a person, literally inside-out. And even when you see what he is capable of, you do not get the easy satisfaction of hating him, as you are already attached to the beautiful monster that Hopkins has created.
Most of the other characters are mainly representational for the strategic actors of the investigation milieu – their part in the power-plays is more important than their individual personalities. Even if Ted Levien’s character is nuanced and Catherine’s (Brooke Smith) animal-like panic is truly gut-wrenching.
Even after 29 years, this movie pierces into your brain to deliver a real synaesthesia. Here, the body is an extension of the psyche, not solely an instrument to make as gory as possible for cheap thrill. For seasoning, it is diffused with symbolism and a spot-on soundtrack, so… it is still a big deal. And it’s no surprise that it is a multiple-Oscar-worthy big deal.
Image: FaceItDrawing via Deviant Art