That Moment In ‘The Silence of the Lambs’: Making the ‘Mindhunter’ Connection
The Silence of the Lambs is a 1991 thriller about a young FBI cadet who must receive the help of an incarcerated and manipulative cannibal killer to help catch another serial killer, a madman who skins his victims.
Recently, like many, I got wrapped up in the Netflix crime series Mindhunter, created by Joe Penhall. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a dramatization of the FBI’s Criminal Profiling Program and its origins, tracking the work of men and women who use psychology to better understand the way a serial killer comes to be and how it can be used to possibly prevent such crimes. It’s immensely entertaining and one of the best series currently on the streaming service. The main character is Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and he’s based on a real life figure named John Douglas, a former special agent and profiler.
Douglas has seen things that would ruin most of us, and it certainly did him some damage as well. His book Journey into Darkness, a collection of true stories from his time in the FBI’s elite Investigative Support Unit is one of the most disturbing reads I’ve ever had and still haunts me today, even twenty years after it was first published. Mindhunter is based on his follow-up to that book, and really helps to solidify Douglas’ significance.
So why am I bringing all this up when I’m supposed to be writing about Jonathan Demme‘s award-winning The Silence of the Lambs? Well, the author of the book the film is based on, Thomas Harris, actually wrote the character of Jack Crawford (played by Scott Glenn in the movie) – head of the Behavioral Science Unit – as a reflection of Douglas. He has a small role in the finished film, but greatly impactful, and once you know the story of Douglas, it makes this movie all the more compelling. Let’s take a look.
The story in brief goes like this: When a brutal serial killer (Ted Levine) is skinning victims to make a ‘girl suit’, and the daughter of a prominent woman goes missing, FBI cadet Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is put on the case to speak with imprisoned Dr.Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a supremely intelligent psychopath who she hopes will give her insight into catching the murderer and saving the girl, though his cat and mouse games tests the gifted agent at every dangerous turn.
Directed by Demme, this film adaptation is a mostly smart and convincing psychological thriller that features some terrific performances from the leads, though the supporting cast is their equal with Glenn and Levine in memorable turns. If you’ve read the book, like I have (on multiple occasions), no doubt the film is a little lacking, despite it’s overall greater achievements. Harris’ writing translates well to the big screen, however, the nuance of several particularly powerful moments in the book are absent (that self-storage chapter is one of the best ever written), though that’s hardly the fault of the filmmakers who are working within an entirely different medium. I never really got sold on the climactic ending of the film though, the night-vision chase through the house a departure from the film’s more character-driven tone. The last thing a movie like this needs is derivative jump scare in the dark moment. Still, this is a landmark film, well deserving of the critical praise it received.
That’s evident from the opening credit sequence, which sees Starling, a cadet, literally working her way out of the woods, navigating an academy obstacle course that wonderfully establishes much about this resourceful character, a young woman, alone, with determination, prowess, and independent thinking. It’s one of my favorite movie openings, so richly investing you into a character without a single word spoken. It makes you want to learn more about her. It’s something Crawford sees in her as well, pulling her from the others to offer her a bit of field work, something that, since we now know who Crawford really is (John Douglas), has particular significance. Here’s a guy who’s literally written the book on interviewing serial killers, and he’s passing the torch per se to the next generation. It’s just great to revisit a film with a different understanding of one of its supporting characters. And after we watch Mindhunter, and observe the interview process being constructed, one that Douglas built, we rethink Crawford’s role and his urging to have Clarice take her turn. Comparing her conversations with Lecter and the ones in the television series make for an interesting bit of fiction versus reality.
That said, the best moments of The Silence of the Lamb are in fact when Hannibal and Starling are together, these tête-à-tête’s some of the most entertaining verbal jousting ever put to screen. That starts with their first meeting, one that follows Clarice down to the bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where the good doctor is caged in a stone-faced cell behind a thick pane of plexiglass. He’s monumentally intelligent, but so, as we come to learn, is Starling, who is developing her investigatory skill by trade. It is the beginning of several orchestrated meetings between the two, where each works the other for information.
Their relationship is founded on trust, a system of quid pro quo, with Clarice trying to learn what she can about the killer known as Buffalo Bill, who is kidnapping and then murdering slightly overweight young girls, and skinning them. Hannibal has a connection to this man, but is subversive in offering details, wanting benefits in exchange for a profile of the killer. This includes being moved to a new facility, away from the current warden, whom he greatly detests. Either way, circumstances eventually lead to Hannibal being transported and put in specially-constructed holding cell, basically a steel cage in the middle of a large, heavily-guarded room. It is here where Clarice comes one more time to press Hannibal for answers. It becomes the centerpiece of the entire film. Compare Hannibal with the interviews with Edmund Kemper in Mindhunter and you won’t look at Lecter quite the same again.
The moment is all about the consequences of trust and betrayal between Starling and Lecter and is a sensational sequence of tension where Hannibal knows he has the upper hand. He toys with her intellect, and when she seems too eager for replies, tells her to ask simpler questions about the man she seeks, but refuses to inform too much until she answers some questions of his own. The man has nothing but time.
He asks her to continue a story she began earlier about her childhood, after her father was murdered and she ending up living with relatives on a farm. She recounts waking up to the sound of spring lambs being slaughtered and that she even tried to save one lamb but couldn’t and now the screaming is what haunts her dreams, which unsurprisingly delights Lecter. He posits that Clarice’s efforts now are in hope of saving the missing girl, thinking that it will, if she succeeds, silence these lambs.
I love the analogy here, where Lecter correctly illustrates how Clarice sees herself in her role as an FBI agent, a woman with power now to save those who can’t save themselves. This really adds weight to the opening sequence, seeing the inner agony in her face as she struggles to complete the course, not for herself, but for the innocent lambs who die with no one to protect them.
I also like the way Demme films this important exchange, the dichotomy of the two constantly in reverse. He is the one in a literal cage while she wrestles to be free of a figurative one. We typically look at animals in a zoo cage and note their pacing, their unease, the unnaturalness of their situation, and yet here, that dynamic is opposite as Lecter sits unmoving in his chair while Clarice paces outside. Watch how Demme films this, where we see her from Hannibal’s perspective, so it actually looks like she is the one behind bars. It’s wonderfully subtle and plays with our own expectations of who’s in charge. This is a terrific piece of filmmaking and reason why Demme was a true master.
The Silence of the Lambs is a highly influential thriller, with a strong female presence and a timeless villain. A rare crime drama that let the characters dictate the story rather than the action, the film deserves to be studied for how is introduces and defines the people in the story and how it generates tension through genuine human behavior instead of contrived plotting. The relationship between a killer and an agent remains one of the most complex and satisfying in all of cinema and serves as an excellent prelude to a Netflix true-crime series some twenty-six years later.