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The Silence of the Lambs

Over-the-top serial killers Hannibal the Cannibal and Buffalo Bill may chew up the screen, but Starling's at the center of the story.

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The Silence of the Lambs

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Screens at the Charles Theater Aug. 15 at 9 p.m. as part of Gunky’s Basement film series

Over-the-top serial killers Hannibal the Cannibal and Buffalo Bill may chew up the scenery (and the faces), but The Silence of the Lambs still haunts because of Clarice Starling. In fact, Jonathan Demme’s 1991 blockbuster might be the most feminist film ever to fail the Bechdel Test.

The titles crawl over a woman running through the woods, sweating, panting, darting looks back over her shoulder as an ominous score sounds. She is not, it turns out, fleeing for her life—FBI trainee Starling (Jodie Foster) is doggedly taking a solo run on a training course—but Demme’s opening sequence nonetheless evokes that classic female screen function: prey.

Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally (working from Thomas Harris’ novel) are after bigger game, however, and continue by establishing Starling as one of a handful of women in a swinging-dick male environment. Demme often shoots Foster so it’s clear she’s at least head shorter than her mobbing male classmates or that she’s moving against a flow of massed, burly bodies. Despite her helmetlike bob and her armor-like business suit, despite a glimpse of steely core, Starling is alone, somewhat fragile. Vulnerable. The perfect foil for a film full of Y-chromosome antagonists.

Even as FBI profiler Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) takes Starling under his wing with paternal affection, he also patronizes her. Almost every male character she encounters gapes at her, smirks at her, or hits on her (sometimes in combination). No one seems to take her quite as seriously as (drumroll) vicious psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, controlled and chilling with a character that later devolved into camp). Starling talks about murderous boys with a lone fellow female FBI trainee (Kasi Lemmons), but the scant other female characters—Brooke Smith’s abductee, even Diane Baker’s U.S. senator—are set against the most persistent stereotypes of their biological screen destiny: isolated, victimized, imperiled by the predatory cruelty of a male-dominated world.

When people remember The Silence of the Lambs, they probably think first of Hopkins (rarely better in his long career) or of Ted Levine’s ambi-effed-up Buffalo Bill (ditto). And enormous credit is due to Demme’s pulpy verve. But it’s Foster’s Starling and Demme’s subtle framing of the story through her eyes that gives the film its power. Don’t believe me? Try imagining being this gripped by the exploits of Agent Clarence Starling played by, say, Val Kilmer.

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