What always sticks with me the most are the eyes.
There is a serious argument to be made that close to half the shots in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 horror classic The Silence of the Lambs are simply faces staring back at the screen. Conversational scenes between two characters often switch back and forth between shots where each of the participants’ faces are in centre frame, their eyes looking directly into our own, the meeting of gazes somehow both impossible yet undeniable. The characters are not viewing the audience. The audience is separate from the scene. But we are also fascinatingly involved in a way that simple over the shoulder shot/reverse-shot would not allow. The sense of abstraction that more conventional camerawork creates has been deliberately stripped away for key cinematic effect.
The concept of what is in “view”, and the conscious act of looking, is integral to what makes The Silence of the Lambs the seminal work that it is. On a basic functional level, this cinematic framing feels more immediate, allowing the dexterity of the actors’ performances to be more impactful. For Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), we empathize with her more readily, seeing the careful mixture of fortitude and vulnerability in her expression, letting us into her mindset and getting us on her side far quicker than a film of this nature would typically permit. When she speaks about her fears and experiences, the critical character information that develops our emotional investment in her, we are the ones she is in conversation with as much as who she’s actually speaking to.
For Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), it works much the same way but in the other direction, his piercing gaze making us feel like we’re the ones he’s sizing up instead of Clarice, for the audience to experience his predatory behaviour first hand. Despite there always being some kind of barrier between him and Clarice, between him and us, the camerawork limits that distance by zooming so close to his face, so the audience is rarely in a position of genuine safety when he’s present. Even though Lecter spends most of his screen time incarcerated, the camera’s positioning often makes the audience feel like the ones who are trapped rather than him. These flourishes are crucial components of what helped make this film’s interpretation of Lecter one of the most well-remembered villains in cinematic history.
On a more abstract level, the pervasive “looking” motif contributes to the general sense of unease the film has, while also building suspense and thematic intent in key scenes. One of the best examples of this is in the “quid pro quo” sequence where Lecter agrees to assist in profiling Buffalo Bill in exchange for details about Clarice’s personal life. It’s a plain power play, a demand for personal performance and emotional honesty with only the promise of a chance at saving a young woman’s life as a reward, but it harkens back to one of Lecter’s less iconic but most important lines of dialogue: “Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have.” Perhaps more than any other line in the film, these seven words illustrate why The Silence of the Lambs has the power that it has.
For Lecter, these words are mostly taken to be literal. Lecter says that line when asked about one of his drawings, an incredibly detailed replication of the Duomo di Firenze in Florence, Italy, indicating how isolated from the world he has become after eight years in a cell. It’s telling that when offering the profile of Buffalo Bill, he says “What I want is a view. I want a window where I can see a tree, or even water.” The act of looking at the world, to see nature and the environments that surround us every day, is one that is mostly taken for granted, a simple pleasure of life that Lecter has been denied for nearly a decade. In his cell, memory is his only refuge from staring at four walls, the ravings of the other inmates on his block, and the “petty torments” of his sworn enemy Dr. Chilton.
When applied to Clarice, the line is figurative, yet still truthful. The story she tells Lecter as part of their deal, about the death of her father and her brief stay with relatives at a sheep and horse ranch in Montana, is her “worst memory of childhood,” per Lecter’s request. Thanks to the aforementioned camerawork and the ticking clock of knowing time’s running out for Bill’s next victim, the two scenes where she relays the story are tense, fraught with a feeling of impending doom even when there isn’t any tangible danger to Clarice’s person. Lecter, of course, is still in his cage. The threat to her isn’t physical. The threat is in the psychological unravelling, how he is forcing not himself to see, but her to see, truly see, what is driving her down a path of killers and corpses.
Clarice was traumatized by seeing the lambs at the ranch being slaughtered, hearing their screams in the middle of the night and realizing there was nothing she could do to save them. She admits that she still hears those lambs in her nightmares as an adult. Her memories of that event haunt her, even though she is many miles and many years away from the specific experience that created those memories. Lecter theorizes that Clarice is determined to save the woman Buffalo Bill has kidnapped because she has drawn a parallel in her mind between this woman and the lamb she failed to save. What is most quietly compelling about this scene is Clarice’s answer: “I don’t know.” She doesn’t confirm Lecter’s theory; it’s left hanging in the air as a plausible, even likely, scenario. But she doesn’t say he’s correct.
Clarice never truly answers the question. We only watch as she continues to press onward, through blood and despair, to look into the darkest recesses of human depravity, to confront a monster despite still being saddled with the same vulnerability and inexperience she had as a child when she tried and failed to save that one spring lamb she stole from the ranch. It’s what makes her such a fantastic protagonist, because she chooses to brave the unknown and face potentially deadly consequences rather than sit in a room with nothing but her memories.
It begs the question of which one she finds more terrifying.
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