Film * Jonathan Demme * Serial Killaz * 1991
This film, which I probably watched way too young, is one of those pieces of media that shaped my cultural tastes. I say “too young,” but I was twelve and watched it with my parents. In the dark. So really, if my interests turn toward the macabre and the apocalyptic, it’s their fault. And The Silence of the Lambs is emphatically both. Considering the film is about a serial killer who straight up skins his victims, the morbid aspect of the story is obvious. Less obvious are the post-apocalyptic themes the film discusses around the edges of the narrative, which have to do with why serial murder happens at all. Before any of that, however, there is the primary story itself.
The Silence of the Lambs is about a young FBI trainee named Clarice Starling. As the film begins, we find her running through some spooky woods, which turn out to be a training course. This credit sequence does two things right away. First, it shows the dogged determination of this young agent-in-training. What she lacks in physical stature she makes up for by working twice as hard as others, after all, she’s on this course voluntarily, by herself. Secondly, it sets the somber, grey atmosphere of the film overall. Clarice may be running through a bastion of civilization (the FBI as a pillar of the repressive arm of the state, naturally), she is still located in a grim clutch of forest, running alone through the mist and the mud. However, once the credits are finished she is pulled from her training and the camera follows her as she veers from being alone in the woods to the more obvious trappings of civilization. Soon she’s in her superior officer’s modern office, learning what the movie is going to be about.
There’s a serial killer on the loose. This was common cultural currency in 1991, as serial killers had been breathlessly discussed by the media and culture at large for decades at that point. More on that in a moment. This killer is called ‘Buffalo Bill,’ because his whole deal is that he kidnaps his victims, kills them, and then harvests their skin. The FBI are at a loss, because he seemingly works at random. The victims are kidnapped in one place and dumped in another, from Ohio to Tennessee. The only thing which connects the victims are that they are all plus-sized ladies. Since Clarice is a budding behavioral scientist, her boss (who may or may not be into her) decides to send her to meet with another serial murderer, on the off chance he may be able to help profile Buffalo Bill.
This other guy is, of course, Hannibal Lecter. He was a behavioral psychiatrist as well before he started to indulge his, uh, more primitive impulses. Which is to say he likes to murder and eat his victims. Or he did, but then he got caught and encased in the spookiest of asylums, which is where Clarice must go to interview him. Look, this film won all five major Academy awards, so you don’t need me to tell you that Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster have these characters on fucking lockdown. Their psychological interplay is fascinating, and their conversations are taut and anxious. Both characters are working toward entirely different and opposing ends, but are able to use each other to attain their goals through a strained mutual respect.
About a third of the way through the film, which to this point has been all about building atmosphere, a clock is started. Another victim has been taken, but this time it’s the daughter of a Senator, so of course her life is more important than the others. This development injects a sudden sense of urgency into the rest of the film, especially when it is noted that Bill only keeps his victims alive for about three days after he abducts them. Clarice Starling, who was only ever supposed to be an ancillary resource for this investigation, suddenly finds herself at the crux of this major crime case, if only because of her weird relationship with Dr. Lecter. Of course it’s this relationship which gives her an edge to figuring out how to bring Buffalo Bill in.
As we have seen, The Silence of the Lambs is about a plucky young agent who cracks a big serial killer case by enlisting the assistance of an enigmatic murderer. What the film is also about, however, is the collapse of the American working class and the ensuing fallout of that collapse. Look at this movie. Really look at it, how grey it is. How dilapidated everything is. How washed out and grim the buildings are. On the surface, this all adds to the grim and intense atmosphere of the film. We’re not supposed to be comfortable, after all. Yet it is telling that Buffalo Bill lives and operates in the Rust Belt and the equally ramshackle towns of the South. When Clarice ends up in Ohio, ostensibly looking for clues about Bill’s first victim, what we are given is a tour of social decay. The town is an undead ruin, and stands in for countless other small towns across a vast section of America.
In these post-modern times, things move quickly. Compared to the rest of human history, progress – technological, economic, social – is currently moving at warp speed. We’ve seen the effect of this on those who endured the first wave of this phenomenon in the early 20th century. Here, at the end of the century, that progress is still moving, faster than ever. This progress has moved so swiftly that it cannot help but blow through entire segments of the population, leaving them behind and forgotten by the rest of a society riding this insane surge. In this instance, what has been left behind is the industrial working class. The industrial hellscape that DH Lawrence so lamented has been almost entirely discarded by the United States (and conveniently shifted to developing nations) in favor of a technological ‘service’ industry. Those who made their livelihoods either working in factories or mining the raw materials needed for industry found themselves set adrift in a whole new landscape. Those who could not (or would not) adjust to this new world were simply left in rapidly shrinking, decaying towns and cities.
The consequences of this collapse are too many to get into here, obviously. As far as The Silence of the Lambs is concerned, there are two things to look at. The most clear is the serial killer as a symptom of collapse. The film draws a visual parallel between these decaying Rust Belt towns and Buffalo Bill’s dilapidated house. While most of the town still persists, it is under a perpetual cloud of depression. There does not seem to any kind of hope or positive influence on their lives, and as such the structure of the town itself has degraded. Buildings fall into disrepair and nobody seems to notice. The exterior of the buildings simply reflects the interior of the community. Buffalo Bill, of course, has gone a step beyond the rest of his community. Depression has transgressed into a sickness far deeper and more disturbing. His fucked-up den of terror reflects this depravity. While his nightmare house is clearly more degraded and horrifying than the rest of the town’s, it should be noted that the house still blends in. Bill is still part of the community, even if he is a sick outlier. He’s still symptomatic of the overall collapse.
Meanwhile, Clarice Starling represents the other problem with the collapse in question. One of the major issues facing these decayed and collapsed industrial towns is that they shrink and are eventually abandoned. Once those who could not (or would not) adapt to the new realities of the economy and its impacts on society either give up and move or die, the towns are finished. Starling is one of those who left for something better. She is smart, ambitious, and determined. She is also dirt poor. In her first meeting with Dr. Lecter, he is merciless in pointing this out to her. This reality of her situation is underscored by the film moments later when she leaves the asylum and has a brief emotional breakdown in front of her busted, dilapidated Ford Pinto. Starling is every bit as upset at Lecter seeing her core motivation so easily as she is at having a crazy dude throw jizz at her. She’s from West Virginia, ground zero of the kind of apocalyptic collapse that I’ve been discussing here. Yet Starling is not overwhelmed by the dissolution of the society into which she was born. She claws her way out.
Finally, and in tandem with the character of Clarice Starling, I think it’s noteworthy to point out that The Silence of the Lambs does an exceptional job in subtly dealing with feminism (it’s unfortunate this progressive viewpoint doesn’t extend to the transgender community, but baby steps I guess). This kind of social progress is occurring simultaneously with the kind of progress that dropped the bottom out of the industrial working class. For Clarice Starling, her womanhood is simply another obstacle to overcome, and the film does real work in showing how difficult that can be. As I’ve mentioned, Starling is smart, ambitious, and determined. She’s also diminutive of stature and attractive. While these may seem like good attributes to have, most of the time they end up working against her professional interest. There’s an argument to be made that Starling only gets the Lecter assignment because Crawford finds her attractive, but there is no overt sign of this (it’s mentioned by others, but Crawford himself never shows outward signs of being anything other than impressed by her achievements). Meanwhile, Starling has to deal with a male-oriented agency pretty much the entire film.
There’s a scene that encapsulates Starling’s experience and personality perfectly. A body has washed up in Tennessee, and it’s clear that it’s a Buffalo Bill victim. She is invited to participate in the autopsy, which is being done at a rural funeral home. As she enters the small room, it is made immediately uncomfortable for both Clarice and the viewer, because it is filled with uniformed male cops who all tower over the much smaller Starling. There’s some typical tension between the local cops and the feds, and then Crawford takes the Sherriff aside, mentioning that he doesn’t want to speak of such unpleasantness in front of a lady. Starling is left in this little room with all these tall dudes, all of whom are just staring at her like “what is this little chick supposed to be?” It’s uncomfortable. Moments later, she is tasked with clearing them out, which she accomplishes by ratcheting up her West Virginia drawl and playing to their local small-town sensibilities. Later, she makes it clear to Crawford that what he did was a dick move. “It matters, Mr. Crawford. Cops look to you to see how to act. It matters.” Both Crawford and the audience take the point.
In the end, Starling gets her man. The ending sequence, where Starling is fumbling around in the dark of the madman’s fetid killing den while Buffalo Bill stalks her with night-vision goggles ruined me as a kid. Yet Starling triumphs, Bill is slain, the victim is rescued. Dr. Lecter also triumphs, and the last shot of the film is of a Bahamas street scene as one serial killer is exchanged for another. The difference is that where Bill is a product of a collapsed segment of society – poor white trash, in the film’s terms – Dr. Lecter is the opposite. He’s symptomatic of something else which isn’t made clear by the film, after all, he’s not really the villain. Lecter is educated, refined. He’s also arguably more brutal than the filthier, nastier Buffalo Bill. Serial killers, then, have more than one origin in our increasingly more complicated and fast moving society. Yet they are always indicative of something gone terribly wrong.