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The Silence of the Lambs at 30: Jonathan Demme’s Style Sees (Almost) Everything

Endlessly revealing, though not without its problems, Ben Flanagan looks back on the serial killer classic three decades after its release

Like a fabled fava bean, The Silence of the Lambs is nothing if not potent. 30 years on, its dialogue is quoted as though a sitcom catchphrase, its imagery lingers in Halloween parties and memes, and the entire sub-genre of serial killer procedurals lives in its shadow. From Hannibal Lecter’s mask to the film's climactic night vision denouement, Lambs is so buried into our pop cultural DNA that, even as its exploration of gender roles look as retrograde today as they did in 1991, it remains an irresistible text. Just when we think we've reached the bottom of the well, there's always more to cover in Jonathan Demme's careful pattern of meaning.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is going through FBI training when she gets called in to help investigate the serial killer Buffalo Bill. A shot of half a dozen 6ft men in an elevator, their chests puffed out of red shirts while Clarice stands awkwardly, quickly illustrates how male dominated her world is before she even has to navigate the constant flirtatious passes and professional relegation. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, the serial killer she is asked to study for connection to the case, takes advantage of this situation. He is a tempter, his snakish face reflected in his cell against her Eve-like virtue.

Anthony Hopkins' performance is, of course, the film's most famous element – but also, perhaps, its least interesting. Next to Foster’s internalised, almost silent movie turn, Hopkins leans into pantomime. But by giving him just 15 minutes of time on-screen, it is the threat of this character that makes him so iconic. He lingers in the mind. His perception of the parts that make Starling up – the parts of a woman – wrecks her, and Demme keeps close to her psychology through POV shots. Dolly shots of Starling advancing to a car, to a funeral casket, are contrasted with flashes of memory. It is this past trauma that Hannibal capitalises on, as he feeds Starling clues for each piece of detail she reveals of herself. His focus on the sin of coveting becomes a lens through which all of the characters see each other, as vessels for utility and desire, in the hunt for the vicious killer Bill.

Demme’s emotional investment in this way of seeing is defined by his trademark close-ups. Angled straight-on, like a passport picture, it is as though the actors are making eye contact with the viewer. In the underworld of Hannibal Lector, this has hints of the film noir nightmares of Fritz Lang: Demme, who cut his teeth under Roger Corman, flexes his action muscles in a couple of extraordinary sequences. And its influence can be seen in the generous pleas for connection in a Barry Jenkins close-up.

This style of empathy: collaborative, world-building – is the definitive Demme touch. His post-punk vision – from Something Wild to Stop Making Sense to Married to the Mob – showed marginal transgressions in Reagan’s America. His films are obsessed with transformation, with who we are and can be. Melanie Griffith’s Audrey in Something Wild turns from an African-appropriating femme fatale to a Marilyn Monroe type, to a 1930s moll, according to how she needs to be seen by men, and herself.

It is little wonder then, that Lambs’ theme of transformation is so casually transmisogynistic. The major conversation around the film, both then and now, is the backlash from the LGBTQ+ community. The film was protested at the Oscars the night it won “The Big Five” – Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay – a whole year after its release. Justifiably, there was anger about the portrayal of the Buffalo Bill character, played by Ted Levine with ostentatious camp, a savage serial killer at a time when on-screen LGBT+ representation was extremely rare in a mainstream Hollywood picture. Bill’s gender identity is dismissed when evaluated by Lecter, and the film seems to concur. The butterfly motif, which recurs as a symbol for change, appears crass in this context.

Hannibal projects the awful, abject truth. That Starling’s actions allow for Lecter’s escape, even while aiding her capture of Buffalo Bill, tells of the film’s ultimate bargain: it is worth allowing the sophisticated, heteronormative killer to walk free if it means locking up the one who doesn’t play by the rules of society. For all of the film’s messaging about coveting, it is a submission to the appeal of the refined Lecter that advances regressive tropes of gender roles.

More of a Howard Hawks than an Alfred Hitchcock, Demme always ensures to ground the film's sense of surrealness. The heads in jars, the chalk marks under noses, the shapes and angles of a dozen policemen spilling into a room with their guns facing every which way, the cocoon in the throat, the woman in the well. Hannibal’s finger stroking Starling’s, as he hands her the case files. And of course, that goalie's mask. Like Dali, or Magritte, these visuals aim straight for the sensory, with sight, sound, or smell blocked or inverted at notable points. And like Clarice at the film's climax, looking desperately into the camera for just a glimmer of hope, we continue to stare into the mandala of style that is The Silence of the Lambs, endlessly searching for answers.

The Silence of the Lambs is available on various streaming services.

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