I have a confession to make: I have never watched the full movie before. I had been too young to see it in the theaters. I've seen bits and pieces on television, but could never stay with it long enough because Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter scared the bejeezus out of me.
Then there's the part that's been shown over and over in film and writing classes since then: Clarice Starling pacing outside Hannibal Lecter's cell, unease written all over her, the prisoner stands calmly. It's a role reversal that leads us to the real reason why Agent Starling is intent on capturing Buffalo Bill. It's more than proving herself worthy and better than the men in her world or saving the senator's daughter. All Clarice wants is a good night's sleep. For the lambs to stop crying.
When I finished the movie, aside from being scared sh*tless, my first thought was: Godammit, I should have watched this sooner.
Hannibal Lecter is a master at perceiving characters. Starling has not even graduated yet from the FBI training camp, but she's at the top of her class and is given this special assignment to talk to Lecter. She's been warned never to tell him anything personal. Yet all it takes is a single eye to toe look ("Your good bag and cheap shoes."), a couple of seemingly innocent questions (Undergrad at the University of Virginia) and he has Starling's number.
The movie is more than two decades old, came out three years before The X-Files and Dana Scully, at least 6 years before David Fincher's Se7en and a good ten years before CSI numbed us to the specifics of forensic investigations. (Odds are ten to one that Gil Grissom's insect geekiness owes a lot to the insect geeks in this movie. Anyway...) It's not really the grizzly details, the blood and gore and even the microscopic DNA whatever that matters. It's how the mind works, the wheels turning and memories unlocking. And yet, The Silence of the Lambs is still arguably better at providing psychological insight as to why serial killers/criminals do the things that they do.
The most interesting parts of The Silence of the Lambs isn't the gore, it's the trust slowly building between Lecter and Starling, the quid pro quo, and that slow dread of waiting whether Lecter, who has developed a mild obsession for his student, would hunt her down and have a new friend over for dinner. And when Starling descends into that basement and the lights go out, you think back to that early scene during FBI bootcamp, that fake raid that ends with Starling with a gun on her head. It's not just a blind spot, it's a goddamn blackout, and dammit if Buffalo Bill gets to her first.
But what I like the most about Jodie Foster's Agent Starling is that she gets the right mix of vulnerability and courage. She *is* better than everyone in class. And as Amy Taubin points out in her essay in the Criterion Collection: "Clarice's mission is not to marry the prince but to rescue the maiden." Whether by smarts ("Your anagrams are showing.") or with the aid of a gun, Agent Starling gets things done.
You breathe a small sigh of relief when it's over. And yet it's not really over. Lecter is still out there, having dinner with an old friend and phones his new one during FBI graduation. Lecter has one question: Have the lambs stopped crying? Perhaps the more apt question is this: Will it ever stop?
The Silence of the Lambs has quite the afterlife: There are many attempts to clone the movie's success and parlay it into television. (The movies are another matter.) There is a spinoff under development, a crime procedure that follows Starling after she graduates from the FBI academy. There's also a prequel that follows Lecter in his early days as a psychiatrist who occasionally eats his patients and the police. Or as the AV Club jokes, to complete this cottage industry mindset, all we need is a show that comes from Buffalo Bill's dog's point of view.