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The Silence of the Lambs

Multiple Layered Pulp Melodrama


by Gregory Desilet


          The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is a film about an incarcerated serial killer (Anthony Hopkins) who happens to be a diabolically clever psychiatrist. He is also nicknamed “Hannibal the Cannibal” Lecter for his famous habit of eating body parts of butchered victims. An attractive female FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), enlists his aid in the hunt for another serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). This killer earned his nickname because he is notorious for skinning female victims. In other words, the film has much to offer audiences who have outgrown the standard horror and slasher genre. It was made into a cultural phenomenon of staggering proportions by the Motion Picture Academy when it was awarded no less than five Academy Awards—including the big three of Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. The disparity between the Best Picture award and the quality of the film makes The Silence of the Lambs a definite candidate for perhaps the most flagrant error in judgment ever made by the Academy in its long history. And this error forces the question:  What happened here?

The film critic Jake Horsley, whose analysis of violent films is entitled The Blood Poets, offers several worthwhile reflections on The Silence of the Lambs. Although I have repudiated Horsley's opinions of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Matrix (1999), he is often an insightful critic and his judgment of The Silence of the Lambs is admirably on target. He accurately identifies the film's basic genre when he observes, “At its most primitive level, if we conveniently ignore all the muddle-headed metaphysical psycho babble about 'the nature of evil,' and the lame attempts at characterization, Silence is an old-fashioned monster movie.” He then points out the trick the film pulls that sets up the trap the Academy fell into: “Silence... is a horror movie for all the family to see, not because it's less disgusting or offensive than other horror flicks (it's considerably more so, I think), and certainly not because it's more artful, intelligent or thought-provoking, but because the production values, and the credentials of those involved are so much 'higher' than is generally expected from a horror flick” (1999b, 186-187).

It is the “credentials” of those involved and the slick finish of the product combined with a baroquely networked plot that duped the members of the Academy, and many critics and audiences, into taking fool's gold for gold. Horsley sums up nicely: “Not since The Exorcist has a film offered up sleazy gore and cheap thrills with such a hallowed, humorless aura of self-importance as Silence of the Lambs” (1999b, 185). 

The apparent complexity of the film derives from its rather clever interweaving of three popular melodramatic plot lines thereby giving birth to a motley melodramatic item. These three plot lines include the psycho thriller, the police/crime, and the slasher/horror genres. The psycho thriller thread grows from the tension between Lecter and the prison warden and psychiatrist, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), the prison guards, and all others who, as Cynthia Freeland points out, show “discourtesy”—the trait Lecter hates most. The police/crime drama develops through Starling's search for the serial killer Buffalo Bill. The slasher/horror theme plays around edges of the tension between Starling and Lecter. Hannibal stalks her with a psychologically penetrating thoroughness and leering intimacy that qualifies as a form of cerebral rape. This tension between Starling and Lecter is amplified by the fact that, true to the slasher model, Starling seems to court the risk of this “rape” beyond what is necessary for the task in which she has involved herself. 

However, the complex networking of plot lines is more an ornamentation than a substantial element of artistry in the film. The primary plot line divides into parallel lines generated through qualities and dilemmas shared by both Starling and Lecter. The dimension of commonality between these two characters overshadows the tension between them to the point that this tension takes on the sense of a sexually charged game as much as a deadly dance of horror. The tension of the search for Buffalo Bill also becomes a sideshow as it is largely subordinated to the parallel plot tension. 

This parallel plot tension results from the respective conflicts that Starling and Lecter have with a “system” that each experiences as victimizing them. For Starling this “system” is the FBI, an agency in which she finds herself on the receiving end of a form of condescension similar to Lecter's hated “discourtesy.” The condescending behavior of her boss, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), nearly costs Starling her life when, near the conclusion of the film, Crawford believes he has caught Buffalo Bill and then instructs Starling to go alone to what he assumes is an unrelated crime site to do routine follow up work. This crime site turns out to be the residence of the real Buffalo Bill and Starling, thanks to Crawford's dismissive treatment of her, is left to stumble into Bill's lair without proper backup.

For Lecter the “system” is, most immediately, the prison system and its ruthless, ignorant, and incompetent warden. More generally the “system” is the larger social bureaucracy that routinely persecutes and demeans the likes of intellectuals such as Lecter who, the audience is led to imagine, victimizes only vile bureaucrats of high rank who lead the way in exercising a “discourtesy” that devalues and dehumanizes others.

The parallel plot line forms a one-two punch to the underbelly of lame bureaucracy as Starling and Lecter appear as “hero” and “anti-hero” against respective villainous systems.  Moral order is restored by Starling when, despite the odds against her, she triumphs over Buffalo Bill and wins the confidence of her dim-witted boss. Lecter restores order when he makes good a Houdini-like escape from prison and, with the concluding line of the film, “I'm having an old friend for dinner,” indicates how he will take revenge on and dispose of the warden. These parallel plots offer a further mixture of melodramas, combining the classic melodrama of the “good” hero Starling with the noir melodrama of the morally tainted “outlaw” hero Lecter.

Horsley is again accurate in sizing up the excesses and limitations of Hopkin's, as well as the script's, characterization of Lecter. Hopkin's portrayal of Lecter, according to Horsley, is not “the least bit imaginative or even remotely convincing. Hopkins plays Lecter as your standard, pop-eyed, leering loony, only with the added twist of being superintelligent to boot....  We seem to be honestly expected, in some hip, nihilistic, new-age, more-amoral-than-thou brand of doublethink, to admire this fruitcake cannibal for the 'purity' of his acts, the clarity of his thought processes, or maybe just for his basic charisma and self-confidence, as 'the most evil guy in town'“ (1999b, 188).

The characterization of Lecter rises to a kind of perfection that even goes beyond “the most evil guy in town.” As Horsley continues, Lecter is “so wholly committed to his nastiness that he's practically a demonic force; and yet, at the same time, Hopkins plays this force perfectly straight, as though somehow he believed (and expected us to believe) that people like this actually exist, somewhere outside the wet dreams of movie executives” (1999b, 189). Horsley is forced to conclude: “Lecter is a movie monster, so there's never the slightest pretense of (or attempt at) making him human.” 

This assessment of Lecter further confirms the fact that the movie presents a strong dose of “noir” melodrama. Like a comic book supervillain, Lecter is given powers of intelligence and manipulative control far beyond the powers of real life serial killers. In this case, through the reversal of melodramatic expectations, the supervillain stands out as hero in relation to a more genuinely base and villainous system—a system designed to appear as in some profound way “responsible” for forcing Lecter into his darkly predatory outlaw existence. 

Cynthia Freeland is one of few commentators on the film to explicitly note the “bucking the system” alignment between Starling and Lecter. She rightly claims that this alignment dissolves the tension between them in such a way that “'good' does not combat 'evil' here because they [Starling and Lecter] are mirror images of one another, not polar opposites.” But then she proceeds to completely misunderstand the implications of this alignment: “The film's depiction of the villainous Lecter reflects an attitude of complete moral ambiguity, so that ultimately his escape and planned revenge against his warden... threatens any full sense of narrative closure or restoration of the order and security of the status quo” (209). 

Freeland fails to understand that the film's last scene with its implied imminent demise of the warden is precisely a “restoration of the status quo”—a status quo interpreted through the film as bankrupt and in need of a radical correction that will serve to restore a more genuine status quo.

Lecter may prove to be in other ways “evil” but in this film his dark but potent powers are brought into the service of ends intended to be viewed as “good.” This explains why, as has been noted by almost everyone writing about the film, audiences laugh and applaud at the film's last line. Audiences feel comfortable laughing at the thought of the grisly demise of Dr. Chilton because the skill of the filmmakers has succeeded in turning the “status quo” thoroughly upside down along with the reversal of standard hero/villain expectations. 

Despite his accuracy in sorting out most of the film's flaws, Horsley, like Freeland, appears to misunderstand the extent of the reversal the film contrives and brings to completion in the last line. Surprised and outraged by the audience response to this line, Horsley's astonishment can only be due to having not entirely appreciated the relative enshrining of Lecter the film engineers against the dreadful, evil “system” he opposes. After commenting on the audience laughter and applause evoked at the showing he attended, Horsley notes, “What could I possibly add, to further persuade you (dear reader) of the depravity of our times?....  A depraved maniac wandering free as a bird, enacting his sick revenge upon a society which he holds only in the utmost contempt, as beneath him, this idea meets with the approval, if not plain delight, of the modern audience.  The film seems intended to curry such approval... (1999b, 191). 

In light of his accurate dissection of the film, Horsley should be certain that the film intends to curry such approval. Through both Starling and Lecter the film is specifically designed to draw on, arouse, and amplify particular emotions that may be lurking within viewers—emotions such as anger and contempt directed toward the “system” and its Dr. Chiltons and Jack Crawfords. And this is part of the depravity of the film—insofar as it may be rightly viewed as promoting, through its melodramatic conflict model, inclinations to apply a similar structure of conflict and heightened contempt to real institutional and workplace situations. 

The kind of orientation the film encourages attitudinally is not necessarily left in the theater. This much Horsley understands very well and perhaps better than most when he rightly concludes—his misreading of the ending notwithstanding—that “a movie is... a small figment of life, which contains and defines and reflects, and to some extent shapes, our feelings and attitudes towards life” (1999b, 191).

Starling's characterization does not fare much better than Lecter's when it comes to socially admirable modeling—especially for feminist conscious audiences. Freeland correctly points out that the fact that Silence has a female hero is not sufficient ground, as some reviewers have suggested, to justify a pro-feminist reading of the film. She then takes the bait dangled by the filmmakers when she claims that the film offers an exemplary female character in Starling. In Freeland’s view, Starling becomes an admirable model for women as she resists and eventually overcomes the challenges posed by a system that has discriminated against her.  However, this wrinkle in the plot reads more credibly as a token concession to feminist-wary front office politics. 

More to the point, the film overwhelmingly endorses and solicits “patriarchal” or “masculine” dominance in its balance of power and order—as is invariably the case in slasher films and variants thereof. The primary reason that the Starling character is cast as a woman derives from the fact that, as in slasher films, a woman is needed as the object of the obsessive attention of a monstrous male figure.  An attractive female victim is required to fuel the engines of this hackneyed but reliable plot vehicle. And the more strength the female victim shows, the more resistance she offers, the higher the emotional flames of male viewers can be fanned into leaping. 

The simulated “rape” scene that occurs between Starling and Lecter (when Lecter passes a paper to Starling and “caresses” one of her fingers with his) is all the more titillating because of Starling's all-too-evident hesitant fascination with and ambivalent attraction to the monstrous Lecter. The dynamics of this kind of interaction are thoroughly analyzed in the discussion of Pinedo's views on the slasher genre and so will not be repeated here (see my commentary “The Slasher Horror Genre Since Psycho”). 

What must be repeated, however, is that the tension between slashers and female victims (or near victims) is badly misunderstood when interpreted in any way that suggests these victims admirably model or advance the agenda of female power. Scenes that dwell on women in extended and graphic depictions of intimidation, abuse, and invasion (psychological or otherwise)—and that often include a subtle suggestion of compliance on the part of these victims—should not be viewed as consistent with a pro-feminist outlook. Films composed of such scenes betray instead an obscene fixation. Exceptional focus, with perverse detail, on interaction between slasher pursuer and female victim ultimately feeds only the worst inclinations of frustrated male libidos as well as the worst fears and inclinations stemming from female frustrations with men.

It can be safely concluded that The Silence of the Lambs is entirely pulp melodrama and fails to offer any genuine conflict either within the characters or between the characters.  Consequently, violence in the film is presented in a context that draws out in disturbingly approving and celebratory ways the most reductive and destructive features of that violence. The Academy dishonors itself by promoting the agenda of such films with awards.




Freeland, Cynthia A. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.

Horsley, Jake. The Blood Poets: A Cinema of Savagery 1958-1999; Volume 2: Millennial Blues, From Apocalypse Now to The Matrix. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999.


Topics addressed:

analysis commentary review of the silence of the lambs

plot structure in the silence of the lambs

character analysis in the silence of the lambs

what genre is the silence of the lambs

the main conflicts in the silence of the lambs

gender conflict in the silence of the lambs

the villain or villains in the silence of the lambs

the silence of the lambs and media violence 

effects of violence on audiences in the silence of the lambs


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