Home >Opinion >Why we love The Silence of the Lambs, 25 years on

The Silence of the Lambs is 25 years old. It opened in the US in February 1991, and in India a few months later. I remember tottering out of the theatre, quite speechless. Plain cold sober, with my mind blown to smithereens.

Since then, I’ve watched bits and pieces of it on TV countless times, and never stopped being vice-gripped by it, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen next. All great films, from The Gold Rush to Django Unchained, have a few things in common. One, every viewing reveals something you haven’t noticed before—whether it is a subtle nuance or a shift in camera angle that doesn’t call attention to itself but adds depth to a sequence. Two, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Three, it creates its own seamless world that pulls the viewer into it for those two or three hours. Silence of the Lambs ticks all the boxes.

It swept the Oscars in 1992, becoming only the third film in Hollywood history, after It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, to win all the five big awards—best film, best director, best actor, best actress, and best adapted screenplay. No other film has achieved that honour since.

It also remains, till date, the only scary movie to win the Best Picture Oscar.

But is it just a scary movie?

“The popularity of Jonathan Demme’s movie is likely to last as long as there is a market for being scared," wrote my all-time favourite film critic, the late Roger Ebert. But then he went on to say: “Silence of the Lambs is not merely a thrill show. It is also about two of the most memorable characters in movie history, Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, and their strange, strained relationship."

For those unfortunate enough to not have seen the film, here’s the story in 140 characters:

FBI trainee Starling seeks cannibal Lecter’s help to track down serial murderer Buffalo Bill who kills women and skins them.

That sounds like a B-grade horror movie. But Silence is certainly not that. Why?

Its most obvious qualities are the masterly performances by Jodie Foster as Starling, and Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. A piece of trivia that may put things in perspective: Hopkins holds the record for winning the Best Actor Oscar with the least screen time—he is seen on screen for only 15 minutes and 38 seconds.

But Silence is fundamentally about Starling, a young woman “one generation away from (a) poor white trash" background and an orphan, but with exceptional spirit and pluck, trying to make a career in male chauvinistic FBI. She is present in nearly every scene, with the camera either following her or watching her face (often from the point of view of the person she is speaking to), as she investigates a series of ghastly murders, and tries to exorcise the ghosts she carries inside her head.

No one who has watched Silence can help rooting for her. Few actresses ever get such a character to portray, and few among them rise so gloriously to the occasion as Foster did.

And there’s Lecter, the super-intelligent psychopath, who takes a liking to her, and aids her.

No one who has watched Silence can help liking him, even though he represents an almost unknowable level of Evil. That is Hopkins’ magnificent triumph. (He has also been acknowledged as the best film villain ever by the American Film Institute.)

But go beyond the acting. Step back and think. Is there anything, anything at all about this film, that you would want changed? Is there any shot, even if lasting just a few seconds, that doesn’t live up to the promise of the whole that it is a part of? I can’t think of any.

Quite simply, it’s one of the most perfectly crafted films ever made. And the craft never draws attention to itself. There are no “hey, look what I can do!" moments, no art-for-art’s-sake shot framing, no nudging the audience to get the subtext. There is absolutely no attempt at sensationalizing anything. This, when there are enough elements in the story that could have been milked for gruesome cheap thrills.

(The most interesting facet of director Jonathan Demme’s career is that he has never repeated himself. Silence has nothing in common with Married to the Mob, while Philadelphia and The Truth About Charlie could be from two different planets. It’s only his outstanding craftsmanship that links these films together.)

Silence has you on the edge of the seat all the time. There is not a single wasted shot, and the film could not have been edited better—not a second more, not a second less. I would rank it on par with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which has been listed several times by film critics as one of the 10 best films of all time.

The script and dialogue. The film more or less treats Robert Harris’ novel as its screenplay, only excising the parts about Starling’s boss Jack Crawford’s private life. Which was a very good move.

Some of Silence’s dialogues already live in hallowed space with lines like “Play it again, Sam" as neighbours. The most famous, of course, is this one from Lecter:

“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."

How about this conversation below? It’s critical to Starling’s investigation, and utterly brilliant, and everyone, from the director to the scriptwriter to the cinematographer to the actors, should share the credit equally.

Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

Starling: He kills women...

Lecter: No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?

Starling: Anger, um, social acceptance, and, uh, sexual frustrations...

Lecter: No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.

Starling: No. We just...

Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?

First principles. That’s a powerful idea. But let’s go on to less obvious things.

Most audiences register this only subconsciously, but rarely has any film used sound in as sophisticated a manner as Silence. There are no guitar blasts or violin shrieks, whereas there is enough scope for inserting these. Watching the film on TV, unless you have a high-quality surround-sound home theatre system, you would never know how menacing the sounds of doors creaking open and steel gates being shut are, as Starling goes deep into the basement of a prison for the criminally insane to meet Hannibal Lecter for the first time.

There are other things too in the soundtrack that build a sense of dread in the viewer, but always in a muted insidious way. Under the instrumental music, you hear helpless screams from far off. In the climax, when Starling is trapped by Buffalo Bill in a pitch-dark cavernous space, the only sound is her fearful panting. It’s terrifying.

The one piece of orchestral music (which I remember; there may be others) in the film is The Goldberg Variations by Bach, which Lecter listens to, and that particular piece of music has confounded musicologists and mathematicians for two centuries. What else would a mind like Lecter’s love?

Come now to the subtext. Watch the film closely, and you may even conclude that it’s really about gender discrimination, not sly psychos running amok. Time and again, Starling is shown in spaces where she is the only woman, from a claustrophobic elevator to a morgue to an entomology laboratory. And this is Demme at his most challengingly subtle. Hardly anyone openly leers at Starling, but there is an air of hostility and condescension that is palpable if the viewer is paying attention.

But you need not. You would anyway get a gripping movie that will gnaw all your fingernails off.

Why do we love this film?

The answer is simple. Because we cannot even begin to imagine if it could have been done better. That’s as good as a film can get.

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