|Scene from The Silence of the Lambs|
With today's passing of director Jonathan Demme, it only seems right to look back at his work. The one that's probably going to get the most attention is his 1991 crime film The Silence of the Lambs. While not a film of the horror genre, it's a wonder that this Best Picture winner often gets considered the scariest movie ever. But why is that? Why did Demme's serial killer tale resonate with audiences on such a deep level? One could argue that it's Anthony Hopkins' excellent performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter - but then why are the sequels considered inferior if he's just as menacing? In fact, neither Lecter nor antagonist Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb (Ted Levine) have a high murder rate compared to Jason Vorhees or Michael Meyers. What is Demme's secret? The answer is subtle and hard to pick up on unless you're intentionally going for it. The answer is direction.
*NOTE: Spoilers for The Silence of the Lambs
To be fair, a casual viewer doesn't know the painstaking craft of being a movie director. There's something specific to each voice that can be seen in the way that a camera chooses to tell a story. In the case of The Silence of the Lambs, it's in ultimate subversion. From the opening frame, Demme tells the audience everything that they need to know about protagonist Clarice Sterling (Jodie Foster). She is introduced in a place considered cliche for horror films: the woods. For the first three minutes as credits roll, she is seen doing training as an FBI agent. Her first task is to climb a rope up a hill. Her independence and strength shows as she continues to run the course at Quantico. Despite this, there's a voyeuristic touch. It feels like Camp Crystal Lake, and maybe Jason is hiding in the bushes. When a man (a superior FBI agent) shows up, it's a bit alarming. Yet all it is to tell her to attend a meeting where she will get the assignment that kicks the plot into gear.
What exactly happened in the first six minutes of this movie? You could argue that nothing did. Clarice merely ran a course that wouldn't play into the rest of the plot. However, what a good director does is create a visual language that helps us understand character. It's an economic approach that shows Clarice's struggles to rise up to the challenge and be taken seriously. The woods create a vulnerable surrounding that raise otherwise empty tension. It helps that composer Howard Shore's music is ominous and leering. Even if Clarice is the figure that the audience will identify with, she already feels confined to a dangerous world. Nothing has happened, but it's hard to not think that something will. Even as she boards the elevator later in the scene, she is almost miniature and weak when surrounded by taller men in uniforms. In a more cliche story, this is how you'd paint the damsel in distress. For Demme, it's painting the damsel trying to solve her own distress.
The camera subliminally does this for the rest of the film. Beyond Hopkins' career-defining performance, there's something unnerving about how he leers into the camera. He may be talking to Clarice, but it feels like he's talking directly to the audience. It's a demented look, and one that seems to objectify Clarice. Demme never doubts that this is a dangerous world. The first half of the film alone features Buffalo Bill kidnapping an innocent woman and dumping her in a hole. He is the neurotic antagonist that Clarice is chasing, and he's more unnerving in his unpredictable nature. To understand him is to understand evil, and that is where the film adapts more conventional crime genre plot points. Clarice does the investigation step by step, yet somehow it feels more demented.
This is largely because Demme doesn't make this story feel like a film. He makes it feel immersive, dropping the audience often within the gaze of Clarice. Most of the film involves her feeling a sense of danger. It makes even the small yet graphic details take on a more sinister tone. Simple body dissections now feel gross and voyeuristic. It leaves the viewer to wonder how they would fare against Buffalo Bill if ever randomly faced with him. Even Hannibal's stare has become iconic because it feels dominant and controlling, leaving the viewer not sure if they would ever be eviscerated and hung on a jail cell. Yes, part of the film's shock comes from the Thomas Harris source material. However, Demme could've just made this a serial killer investigation movie like previous Hannibal movie Manhunter. Instead, he tapped into the essence of film and made the audience feel as if they were interacting with this world.
Beyond this, he also created suspense. Along with the opening scene, there are many points throughout where he misleads the camera through a series of events, only to reveal his actual intentions. One of the most notable examples of this is also among the film's more heightened scenes. When Hannibal is moved to a cell surrounded on all sides by guards, he finds himself in a vulnerable position. As he is being fed by guards, he hides a razor between his fingers. It is noticeable to the camera, but the guards aren't aware that they'll die momentarily. This leads to the FBI storming the building for fear of Hannibal's escape. One of the dead cops was dropped down an elevator chute. There's no sign of Hannibal as the living police officer is pulled from the scene in a hospital van. As the FBI discovers that the man in the elevator chute has no face, it is discovered that Hannibal has stolen his face to be taken out of the venue via a gurney, at which point he murders the employee in the hospital van.
The moment is full of suspense, but largely because nobody would've guessed Hannibal's keen skills for escape. It shows just how powerful Hannibal, a man who had been largely domicile and behind glass before this point, really is. He is a threat that now looms over the rest of the movie, only ever appearing again to say goodbye to Clarice as he hides in a large crowd. His affection for Clarice makes the moment more unnerving, but also makes the audience wonder when he'll strike next. Without knowing who he is, Hannibal seems harmless. Knowing that the man behind the muzzle is a genius serial killer is a different story. The way that Demme chooses to reveal this information is done to undermine the audience and eventually make them question their own perceptions of a man whose creepiness is the least of their worries.
What the film does perfectly is create the sense of vulnerability. As Clarice discovers Buffalo Bill's hideout, she is chased by him wearing heat sensor goggles. She doesn't know where he is as she stumbles around the dark. It makes one wonder if she'll survive, having already been through two hours of a film that feels like it wants to kill everyone else. While Clarice survives, the journey through the darkness isn't easy, and almost feels tragic by accident. It's then that the film recognizes the horror in the plot. It isn't a horror film in the way that The Exorcist is. There's no supernatural elements. It's horror in the way that women throughout the world are victims of unstable men. It may be a trope that Buffalo Bill is a gay villain, but he still carries the weight of a man who can harm people without wincing. It can be seen in the performance of his victim, who is trapped in a hole for the majority of her screen time. She is as physically helpless as Clarice mentally seems. It isn't until she captures Buffalo Bill that the horror will go away. Even then, Hannibal is now loose somewhere, likely to torture some innocent person.
While this is only a broad overview, it should help explain why The Silence of the Lambs is one of the definitive examples of why movie directors matter. They not only shoot a movie to tell a story, but help the audience feel the story. It's because of his ability to tilt the camera slightly or hold a shot for a little longer that he inevitably manages to scare the audience without relying on jump scares or tactics that lesser horror movies (and Hannibal sequels) fall for. This is a crime film about the horrors that unstable men unleash on the world. Demme's vision all makes sense and elevates the simple murders and cops archetypes to something more empathetic. It's the reason that the film continues to resonate. True, it does owe some credit to being a compelling story, but would it be the same without a director like Demme? Far from it. He released a lot of great movies, but this is likely to be the one that should be taught in all film schools on how to perfectly direct a movie. It gets every point across, often in a few shots. It's a tough gig, but Demme proved to be the master of the medium here, and he will be missed.