Empowerment & The Silence of the Lambs

Jonathan Demme's terrifying masterpiece, The Silence of the Lambs, was recently given a 4K restoration by The Criterion Collection.  When revisiting Demme's modern day Inferno, themes of violence, gender inequality, and trauma return to the fore, heightened by the current sociopolitical climate in America.  There have been dozens of articulate critical essays on how the film was groundbreaking with respect to feminism and subversion of the thriller genre and upon my recent return, another concept revealed itself: The Silence of the Lambs is ultimately a statement on empowerment. 

One of the most iconic scenes in the film involves Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling stepping onto an elevator that is filled with men, instantly outlining the character's place within the law enforcement pantheon.  As the narrative progresses, the viewer not only learns of Clarice's tragic backstory, they witness a powerful evolution.  Foster's Clarice is not a victim.  She is an exceptional detective; something that is a rarity in the male dominated crime genre, using both her perspective and experiences to find empathy for the dead and fury for the villains.  One of the most striking things for me is that Clarice doesn't begin in a place of weakness.  She has already been tempered by the loss of her father and the endless chauvinistic advances that her profession has undoubtedly exposed her to.  When Clarice steps into the baroque confines of Lecter's wing in the hospital, Demme's visual chicanery is sublime.  Starling creeps slowly down the hallway towards her subject, unafraid, and the result is unexpected.  Stereotypical male protagonists would have bullied Lecter and been unphased by the unpleasantries of the other inmates.  Demme presents Clarice as a knight errant, someone who has already been tested by a lifetime of bereavement, and to whom the "monsters" are very familiar.    It is this familiarity (brilliantly telegraphed by Foster) that allows Clarice to move past Lecter's psychological armor. 

This is the heart of the narrative.  In Demme's world, Clarice exists in a place where she is either unwelcome, viewed as a trophy, or worse: a victim.  The importance is that she knows this, and these uncomfortable truths become the foundation of her character, creating a potent sense of self that allows her to outclass and outwit both colleague and quarry.  Starling’s fortitude is realized in the film's pulse pounding finale.  It begins with a second descent, yet another time that Clarice is tested, venturing deep into the monster's lair of unspeakable horrors.  This showdown is foreshadowed in the initial scenes with Lecter, but Demme's imagery conjures thoughts of Dante Alighieri's opus and the myth of Orpheus.  It is here that Clarice's final incarnation is revealed, and yet it is something the viewer instantly knows has been there throughout.  She is efficient, pragmatic, and lethal.  Her final scene with Bill is organic, using the perfect combination of body language and sound to create a frenetically charged confrontation.  This is perhaps why the film is so terrifying.  Even with all of her might, experience, and wits, Clarice is almost killed and forgotten in a putrid basement, like thousands of victims every day.  

Rather than toying with these concepts, Demme digs into the marrow.  Bill's victims are chosen based on his needs, and no one, regardless of wealth or station, is safe.  Lecter initially begins as a foil, as the scariest creature in the darkness, however, as his relationship with Clarice matures, he is revealed to be something far more sinister and strangely intriguing.  The Silence of the Lambs mimics the world in which it was conceived.  Bill's rampage through the heartland is the specter of Reaganomics, while Clarice's odyssey exposes strong women who have existed throughout time, eschewing the victim's role that women within the genre are usually relegated to.  Lecter's arc dovetails with Clarice's, as both deal with freedom, both of the mind and body.  While Lecter's story is ultimately about the perceived futility of trying to contain evil, Foster's unforgettable performance not only gives Clarice agency in a male dominated world, it is also a staunch reminder of why light will always conquer darkness, no matter the form it takes.

--Kyle Jonathan