A plot as thick as pathology

Wednesday, May 29, 1991

The Silence of the Lambs
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn
Reviewed by Dave Riley

Here's something that will haunt you longer than the taste of popcorn. The story revolves around the pursuit of a serial killer who strips the skin off his female victims to later sew them together patchwork-like into a skin of his own.

Once in motion, the story goes elsewhere because the plot unfolds at different levels, even though this might seem scarcely possible given what seems to be a nauseating excuse for a movie. However, as the plot thickens, so does the pathology.

FBI trainee Clarice Starling (played with fine containment by Jodie Foster) is assigned to interview another mass murderer to help probe the mind of a serial killer being pursued by the FBI. The person being questioned is a deranged psychiatrist incarcerated for his taste for human flesh. He kills and eats people, and is likely to take a bite at any opportunity. As these malevolent characters go in cinema, Dr Hannibal (The Cannibal) Lecter is unique, Anthony Hopkins outdoing any Nazi Lawrence Olivier could muster in his last years.

The core of the movie is the threat and anticipation in the relationship between Lecter, Starling and the latest kidnap victim. Monitoring and exploiting Clarice's relationship with Lecter is her FBI superior, played by Scott Glenn, a smugly successful technocrat, aloof and ambitious and using his young trainee's skill and determination to build his empire.

Each piece of information squeezed from Hannibal Lecter slowly falls together in a fragmented picture of a psychopath. It's not nice; indeed the major pursuit of the movie is the unveiling of a horror you don't want to know. Herein, though, lie a few twists.

The Silence of the Lambs is a superb thriller, a tale with such torment that your anguish will continue long after the lights come back on. Even given the subject matter, the movie is not cheap. It doesn't wallow in gore or sadism, taking an alienating, clinical distance from the butchery. Clarice Starling is neither avenging angel nor Dirty Harry, and The Silence of the Lambs isn't a moral tale. However, it does exploit a certain voyeurism, and on that it constructs a very intricate and controversial sub-plot.

Superficially, it may seem smart to send a woman in pursuit of a murdering misogynist, but Clarice Starling is dedicated FBI. Her boss uses her sex rather than her talent to tap Hannibal's mind — she is the female gender edge of the bureau. Of course, she is smarter than her superior realises, but in her commitment to the forensic task at hand she allows Lecter to expose her own motivations and uncertainties. This is truly terrible. From her first visit to the institution housing Lecter, Starling must undergo a personal purgatory. This is no girl's own adventure. Starling is alone in a world of men; some try to date her, another flicks sperm in her eye, and later she must enter the lair of the monster himself. While men don't come off well in this movie, the joke on Clarice is that in her allegiance to the FBI she is pursuing and reworking her own relationship with her dead father. Feminism has nothing to do with it. While the paternalistic FBI may seem the only thing that stands between us and those monsters out there, Clarice can win spurs and conquer neuroses by blasting away her first psychopath with standard issue calibre. She doesn't so much join the club of men as get the nod from daddy. n

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